Belfast Telegraph

Smiles, yes, but Good Friday Agreement reunion lacked euphoria of 1998

Architects of peace put on brave face as impasse casts shadow over event

By Ivan Little

Their hair may have been a little greyer; their walking slower and their voices somewhat weaker, but most of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement were still looking healthier than their stalled 20-year-old peace deal at a remarkable anniversary reunion in Belfast yesterday.

And the politicians who bravely took risks for peace two decades ago were yesterday putting brave faces on it as they talked up the prospects for a renewed Stormont power-sharing executive, a Good Friday resurrection, so to speak.

Even former US President Bill Clinton flew in for the 20th anniversary of the historic Agreement which he supported in what Tony Blair said were 'call-a-friend' phone calls from Washington during the tense negotiations which ended in an unexpected compromise pact 7,305 days ago.

And in a stirring rallying cry at Queen's University Belfast, Mr Clinton said the gift of peace from 1998 was "a precious one".

He added: "Make the most of it. And in the process remind the world that democracy is better than dictatorship.

"Remember, you inspired the world 20 years ago. You can do it all over again today. The rest of the world continues to do foolish things. You do smart things.

"Save the peace; save the freedom; save the democracy."

He said the Good Friday Agreement was "a work of genius" that was still relevant and applicable if people cared at all about preserving democracy.

He added: "It called for real democracy - majority rule; minority rights; individual rights; the rule of law and the end of violence; shared political decision-making; shared economic benefits."

Joining Mr Clinton on stage were his former special peace envoy to Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who all urged the new breed of politicians here to find a way out of the current impasse.

Mr Blair recalled the pain of the past and the daily news bulletins filled with terrorism, deaths and destruction.

Mr Blair's message to the politicians was: "Give it your all. Don't stop working at it. Never give up on it, and realise that what you're doing is vital, it's important for the people of Northern Ireland.

"And this Good Friday Agreement, for all its faults, is something that was worth doing and it's worth keeping."

He added: "I know that the tensions are still there; the divisions are still there; the difficulties are still there.

"But don't cast this (Agreement) aside because where we are may not be where we want to be but it is a world better than where we were."

Mr Ahern said nothing was more important in Northern Ireland than stopping people being killed and he outlined the statistics of terror which faced politicians during the 1998 negotiations - 3,700 deaths; 15,000-plus bombings; 28,000 shootings and 47,000 violent events.

He added: "All I say respectfully to the politicians is that big issues were resolved not by the four of us but by everybody."

Mr Ahern said those issues were bigger than the issues facing politicians today and he hoped that "sooner rather than later" they would see the peace process through to the next phase.

In his keynote address, Senator Mitchell - who got a standing ovation from the packed audience - echoed the calls and he urged Britain and the European Union to honour their pledges to not have a hard border after Brexit.

Throughout the day tributes were paid to several of the significant players who were involved in bringing about the Agreement but who were missing from the gathering at Queen's yesterday.

Death had robbed the proceedings of former Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and two rival paramilitary protagonists turned peacemakers: Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness who died last year after pulling the plug on the Stormont Assembly he'd fought for, and the late David Ervine of the PUP, who passed away in 2007.

And too ill to attend was the SDLP's John Hume, hailed as one of the greatest political leaders in Ireland by Senator Mitchell who, after brokering the Agreement, became Vice-chancellor of Queen's where the Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice was set up in his name in 2016.

The Institute organised yesterday's event which wasn't officially fanfared as a celebration.

Sources said they didn't call it that because one of the longest works in progress has, in reality, regressed - sent spiralling back to the drawing board by the hiatus in the Stormont government it helped to establish.

Given that no one was quite sure how to brand the event, the organisers obviously struggled to find the word to describe its participants too. In the end they settled on 'influencers'.

And while there wasn't a party yesterday, it wasn't a wake either as many of the speakers accentuated the positives of what had been achieved over the last two decades.

Optimism was the byword and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson both predicted that their successors, Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster, would eventually go back into government.

"We're in a bit of an ebb at the moment, a bit of stagnation," said Mr Adams. "That's temporary. That will pass. And we'll be back to sorting these issues out."

Mr Robinson commented: "I am one of those who travels in hope. I believe it is possible for us to get an agreement even with the difficulties that we face at the present time.

"What is required is the political will to do it. And if there's political will there, I don't care what the problem is, it can eventually be overcome."

However, a passionate Seamus Mallon, the former Deputy First Minister, didn't bite his tongue.

He furiously lashed out at Sinn Fein and the DUP over the current Stormont stalemate. He said: "Am I angry? Yes. Very angry. I watch the hypocrisies which are unbelievable and the untruths which are believable. Politics has been debased and diminished by these two political silos which have almost Balkanised the Northern Ireland that I live in."

However, Tanaiste Simon Coveney later insisted that yesterday was all about remembering, renewing and reconciling.

And so massive were the numbers of politicians taking part in the event that organisers had to split them into smaller, more manageable, groups to appear at a series of news conferences before the main Agreement panel group discussions in the Whitla Hall, where not so long ago the headlines were all about rows over the playing of God Save the Queen at graduation ceremonies.

The class of '98 posed outside the university's striking Lanyon Building, itself undergoing refurbishment work, for a class photograph which probably won't live in the memory as long as the iconic pictures of the happy clapping dealmakers inside Castle Buildings 20 years ago.

But the most eye-catching contrast between the smiling faces of yesterday and yesteryear was the fact that, while in 1998 the Agreement was struck mostly by men, apart from the Women's Coalition, today, women have soared to positions of political leadership.

Another difference was also obvious. Twenty years ago, reporters and TV crews from around the world flocked to Belfast to herald the watershed dawn of a peace accord in what had seemed like a war without end.

Yesterday however, the media interest wasn't quite on the same global scale, even though several speakers said the Agreement was still held up as a conflict resolution blueprint which continues to be replicated in other trouble hotspots.

Not everyone at Queen's University yesterday had come to laud the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) however.

TUV leader Jim Allister stood on the steps of the Whitla Hall and handed out leaflets to the guests as they went in. The two-page leaflet listed 'deceptions' in the Agreement which Mr Allister labelled a "failure".

Another long time opponent of the Agreement, Willie Frazer, attended another GFA event at Queen's. He said his attempts to put questions to the 'pro-Agreement' panel were ignored.

Back in the Whitla Hall, several speakers said they hoped the anniversary commemorations might help kickstart negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont towards getting an Executive up and running again.

But it has to be said that the euphoria which engulfed Castle Buildings 20 years earlier was nowhere to be seen yesterday at the Whitla Hall.

Belfast Telegraph

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