Good Friday Agreement at 20: We created a positive narrative for change... and steadily the tide turned in our favour
Quintin Oliver, who organised the Yes campaign for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum, reflects on the battle to convince sceptical voters
The Good Friday Agreement changed my life. I left my job in the charity sector as director of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action to run the 'Yes' campaign as a cross-party and non-party movement of persuasion.
We set up what might now be termed a pop-up campaign in rented offices, with volunteer and seconded staff on equal pay of £250 per week, begged and borrowed desks and computers and a huge enthusiasm for our task; we had to appoint a volunteer co-ordinator, for vetting, induction and training, so many were flocking towards us - this was for real, after all, a potential accommodation of unionism and nationalism in fresh, agreed Northern Ireland structures, buttressed by North-South and East-West institutions.
The consent principle was core, the right to be Irish, British or both was novel but simple, what later became Mark Durkan's "ugly scaffolding" (designation as unionist or nationalist, thereby disadvantaging 'others', the rigid D'Hondt formula, the now notorious petition of concern) seemed like necessary protections; the heady words about equality, human rights, integrated education, victims at the centre, women in public life - the end of the conflict was in sight…
Then we faced the tougher challenges as the 11 supporting political parties disagreed on both strategy and tactics, some still refusing to sit together in the same 'peace room', and each wanting to preserve their own funds, identities and media presence in preparation for the first Assembly elections that would shortly follow the May 22 referendum.
Business was lukewarm, following Machiavelli's dictum from 1532 that those who stand to benefit from constitutional change are often least supportive; they feared a negative reaction from their mixed workforces and customer bases; likewise many voluntary groups were concerned that the neutrality that gave them protection during the conflict was too precious to risk by taking sides.
Trade unions were stoically supportive.
The 'No' Campaign was ably led by Ian Paisley's DUP, with a clever slogan: 'It's right to say No' and a lucid negative message strategy, throwing up flak against each part of the Agreement, without having to outline alternatives, and deploying the raw emotion of the conflict with catchphrases emerging like 'Terrorists in Government' and 'Amnesty for Murderers'.
So our solution was to stick rigorously to a compelling 'Vote Yes - it's the way ahead for unionists and nationalists', visualised through smart road sign iconography: the One Way Street for yes, and the No Through Road for no, accompanied by a carefully choreographed 'air' war in the media, and 'ground' war on the streets; we mobilised the parties to work together, sharing platforms and reassuring voters.
We invited celebrities with influence to head up particular events, drawing extra publicity; we briefed and aided women's and community groups to explain and discuss the Agreements trade-offs, and our creative team produced videos for all first-time voters, floated poetry down the River Lagan, threw a huge Yes banner down the Europa Hotel, 'wrote' on the Cavehill and despatched our 'bubble team' with Yes speech bubbles on sticks across the land. Our media team hosted a daily Press conference, framing the day's agenda, and creating a positive narrative for change; we also rebutted opposition charges on victims, prisoner release and decommissioning fears. Artists, musicians, singers and actors came towards us willingly.
At last the tide turned, and the polls moved back up, after suffering enormously from the parading of the IRA Balcombe Street gang in front of a special ard fheis by Sinn Fein, immediately followed by UDA killer Michael Stone's release from prison. Our particular target group of voters - soft unionists - were horrified at these developments. The relentless focused negativity of 'No' was reversed, partly by hope triumphing over fear, the future over the past and confidence over demoralisation, but most of all, we believe, through the dogged determination of conflict weary voters to see through the fear-mongers and opt for a new way ahead.
For me the current gridlock, two decades on, is certainly less than ideal, but the achievements of the Agreement should not be underestimated; power-sharing remains the bedrock for any future accommodation, human rights and equality guarantees have transformed the workplace and the police; parading has been almost solved, with political violence a shadow of its former spectre. We still have progress to make on integration, especially in housing, education and culture; on the economics of the peace dividend, on the legacy of the past and, of course, on genuine reconciliation.
But those ambitions can be addressed by the next generation of leaders at political, business, trade union and community levels. I see that very clearly from my work at Stratagem, the political consultancy I set up, after the referendum, when I discovered that I was all but unemployable - 'too political', employers retorted!
I see it from the international conflict resolution work I am privileged to undertake through Stratagem International around the world's zones of real despair, like Syria, Iraq, the Philippines and even Catalonia in its current imbroglio.
We can certainly move forward with positive consensus.
Quintin Oliver ran the 'Yes' campaign in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum. He now leads www.Stratagem-ni.com and @StratagemINT