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'People are alive today because of the Belfast Agreement ... a generation has been spared the bombs and bullets we were not'

Good Friday, April 10, 1998 - the 20th anniversary of which falls on Tuesday - marked a watershed in Northern Ireland's history. But, as the negotiators of the deal that bears its name tell Suzanne Breen, it very nearly didn't happen

Castle Buildings at Stormont isn't somewhere you expect history to be made. Possessing neither style nor character, it's an unremarkable edifice. Yet within its walls, the 65-page document that would change Northern Ireland's political course irrevocably was agreed.

The name by which it became most commonly known reflects the religious symbolism of the day. It speaks of hope and new beginnings.

After all the bad days - Enniskillen, La Mon, Loughinisland, Bloody Sunday and the rest - came Good Friday.

Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and Bill Clinton played key roles, but ultimately it all hinged on local politicians delivering.

In those rooms in Castle Buildings, there was turmoil and tears, threatened walk-outs and showdowns and unbelievably tough calls made in the rollercoaster ride that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998.

"Nobody knew for sure until about an hour or so before the end that there would even be a Belfast Agreement," says Ulster Unionist negotiator Sir Reg Empey, who prefers to call the deal by its official, secular name.

"I listen to all the talk about the current Brexit negotiations with a wry smile. They say Brussels needs certainty and there are all these strict deadlines.

"But it's like this - until everything is on the table and you're looking into the whites of someone's eyes, you don't truly know whether you'll actually do the deal, or walk away."

On Monday, April 6, the talks chairman, US Senator George Mitchell, gave the parties a draft document. It was utterly unacceptable to the UUP.

The party's deputy leader, John Taylor, declared he wouldn't touch it "with a 40-foot barge-poll". Leader David Trimble described it as "a Sinn Fein wish-list" and faxed Downing Street a letter rejecting the deal.

He had many complaints, but the suggested cross-border institutions were his greatest objection. He said those proposed would not be accountable to local politicians.

With the talks in serious crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Northern Ireland.

He went straight to the stately surroundings of Hillsborough Castle, where he announced to the assembled media: "A day like today is not a day for soundbites.

"We can leave those at home. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do."

He then went for a walk with Trimble beside the lake in the beautiful grounds. Blair promised the UUP leader he would resolve the difficulties. Back inside, they went through the draft agreement in the Lady Gray room, deciding on possible changes that would make it more acceptable to unionists. Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, said it was the last full night's sleep any of them would have.

But it was the role played by Bertie Ahern which Empey describes as "very significant".

The Taoiseach's 87-year-old mother, Julia, had died that weekend and he had been missing from key parts of the negotiations as the family waked her. Hours after her Requiem Mass on Wednesday, April 8, Ahern arrived back for full-on engagement in the talks. He wore a black tie for the remainder of his time at Stormont.

Empey says: "Thank goodness Bertie came back as quickly as he did. In his absence, the Department of Foreign Affairs had started to play a very significant role in the negotiations and it was their influence which had shaped Senator Mitchell's draft agreement.

"Free-standing and independent decision-making north-south bodies were proposed.

"But, on his return, Bertie faced down the Department of Foreign Affairs. With his trade union background, he understood what negotiations meant.

"They didn't involve punching your opponent until they're on the canvass. Your opponent had to be able to deliver.

"Bertie read the situation well and we ended up with north-south bodies, which were very much creatures of the Dail and the Assembly."

Empey explains that, without that change, the UUP could not have signed up to the agreement.

"We were carrying a heavy load with the compromises on prisoner releases and policing reform. Those two matters had made us toxic to many in our support base," he says.

"We had reached tipping point and we weren't taking any more. We had no appetite for further compromise."

The hands-on approach by Blair and Ahern and their civil servants was instrumental in securing a deal, explains the chair of the SDLP’s talks’ team, Brid Rodgers.

“The need to avoid any future IRA bombs in London was Blair’s driving force,” she says.

“He really wanted to end the decades of murder and mayhem for good. Those last three days were hectic.

“It seems, at times, that we would never get the agreement across the line. Trimble was being destroyed by the DUP.

“I remember the Rev Ian Paisley ratcheting up the opposition by leading a crowd of angry, flag-waving protesters to Stormont. Trimble was under more pressure than anyone else.

“In hindsight, I feel very sorry for him. His job certainly wasn’t easy.”

Rodgers recalls Secretary of State Mo Mowlam “giving civil servants the slip” in the maze of corridors in Castle Buildings.

“They were keen to keep her under a tight rein,” she says.

“Mo had a habit of wandering into party rooms, removing her wig and kicking off her shoes and chatting informally.

“They found it very disconcerting. On this occasion, they eventually discovered her in the Sinn Fein room.”

Empey says: “We didn’t appreciate just how unwell she was. Blair pushed her out at every opportunity. His actions made it clear to us that there was little point in negotiating with Mo. When he was in town, he was the man.”

Team Blair found the conditions in which they were negotiating challenging. In his book Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, Powell described Castle Buildings as “a sick building... its formica panelling chipped and crumbling”.

It was claustrophobic, with a layout which left you “disorientated as soon as you opened a door”. It was far worse than anywhere abroad they’d negotiate in future years.

“When we were in some sweltering barracks in Afghanistan, or Iraq, Tony and I would say to each other, ‘At least we aren’t in Castle Buildings’,” Powell wrote.

Senator Mitchell’s Thursday midnight deadline for a deal passed, but the parties kept at it through the night.

“We had booked into the Stormont Hotel for the night, but we never made it,” Rodgers says. “I remember Seamus Mallon lying on a row of chairs trying to grab some sleep, but it was barely a few minutes until someone woke him. At one stage we ran out of food.”

SDLP negotiator Mark Durkan recounted how some party members accidentally broke the fast of not eating meat on Good Friday when sausage rolls were brought in after midnight.

Rodgers recalls the weather being “just as it was this Easter — freezing cold with showers of sleet and snow”.

Inside Castle Buildings, substantial progress was being made. In the wee small hours, TV cameras trained on the building captured the image of Mallon and Rodgers embracing in jubilation in the SDLP room following agreement on strand one.

But further setbacks and wobbles were on the way. Mowlam appeared to have told Sinn Fein that prisoner releases could come after one, and not two years. Republicans protested when Blair withdrew that offer.

Around 2am, Sinn Fein warned that the talks were near collapse. But the Prime Minister managed to keep the party on board.

Then the UUP team became concerned that Sinn Fein ministers would be able to take power in Stormont without IRA decommissioning. Blair wrote Trimble a letter vowing that Sinn Fein would be excluded from government in those circumstances.

Empey describes the moment when the UUP leader had to make the call: “We were all in this ghastly little room in Castle Buildings, with no daylight.

“It was awful. George Mitchell sent a message down that it was decision time and that David needed to go upstairs and deliver our party’s verdict.

“David stood on a chair, or table, and addressed the 40 or 50 people in the room.

“He said he was prepared to go up and accept the agreement and he’d be very pleased if anyone who wanted to do likewise would come with him. I was among those who walked with him.

“He showed immense leadership. There are no parallel figures today with the guts to do something like that.

“During the recent Stormont talks, the DUP negotiators clearly wanted to run with the draft agreement they reached and to do a deal with Sinn Fein, but they lost their bottle in the end. David led from the front.”

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson walked out that day and some of Trimble’s other MPs refused to back the settlement.

Empey says: “Around a third of the party opposed the deal. There was a good case for not supporting it, but I remain proud to have done so. People are alive today because of the Belfast Agreement. A generation has been saved the bombs and the bullets that we were not.”

Just 15 minutes after Trimble said yes, Senator Mitchell convened a plenary session of the talks at 5pm.

At 5.36pm, he told the world: “I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement.”

Rodgers recalls SDLP hearts bursting with pride. “After three decades of violence and ‘No Surrender’, suddenly all that John Hume and our party had argued for was agreed. I couldn’t believe we’d got there. It was a lifetime’s work coming to fruition.”

She stayed the night in Belfast and then drove early the next morning to join her family in Gweedore, Co Donegal, where they were spending Easter.

“When I crossed the door, I just broke down in tears,” she says. “The exhaustion, emotion and elation were overwhelming.

“Nothing I ever experienced before or since has been anything like it.”

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