Ray Bassett is a former Irish diplomat and was intimately involved in preparing the groundwork for the negotiations and the GFA itself. He reflects on those momentous events of 25 years ago. In a sometimes poignant piece he recalls those who made history but our no longer with us and dismisses claims that the GFA is Sunningdale for slow learners insisting it is so much more.
It is hard to believe that it all happened a quarter of a century ago. There are so many vivid memories of that time, which have become almost dreamlike in the meantime, that it is hard to put a representative selection of them down coherently on paper now. My memory is that the morning of 10 April 1998 was cold in Belfast, with scattered snow flurries. All the participants in the Talks had been through a marathon session of more than 48 hours without sleep. That time had passed so quickly, as meeting after meeting followed each other. In between, there had been snatched conversations along the corridors, as the two Governments got down to putting a text on paper. That text represented the two Governments’ best call on what was possible. It was distilled from the countless papers and meetings with the parties. The three Chairs of the Talks, Senator George Mitchell, General John de Chastelain and former Finish Prime Minister, Hari Holkeri, were given the draft agreement by the Taoiseach and Prime Minister and circulated it to the parties. It was the Government’s best and final judgement on what represented a fair and balanced outcome.
The Governments had resolved that it was now or never. That was not shared by all. There was an atmosphere of uncertainty that morning in Castle Buildings on the Stormont Estate. The Nationalist/Republican side was on board, even if it took some last-minute adjustments on equality issues, Irish language education and symbols & emblems to get Sinn Fein finally into the acceptance mode. I had been tasked at the last minute with putting that package together for a meeting between Sinn Féin and Blair and Ahern. The head of the Irish officials at the Talks, Dermot Gallagher, brought my short notes into the two PMs. It was deep into the night when we heard back that the reception from Adams and McGuiness was favourable. It was a green light from them, especially after getting a commitment to a speedy release of prisoners, with all out within two years.
President Clinton had played his part with several persuasive calls to Gerry Adams. In the corridors some older Republicans, including Joe Cahill were there to show that the leadership had the support of the Old Guard. They smiled and made pleasantries with the officials from the “Free State”. Some of the Irish State’s earlier interactions with Cahill would not have been so harmonious. Indeed, the times they were a changing. Cahill’s niece and Sinn Féin delegate the late Siobhan O’Hanlon accompanied us. We were all on the same side now.
The SDLP, under the able leadership of Seamus Mallon, had achieved their founding fathers’ objectives and were naturally elated. The draft agreement bore the intellectual property rights of John Hume, Austin Curry, Ivan Cooper, etc. from the old Civil Rights Days. The middle ground, Alliance and the Women’s Coalition, were always going to support anything reasonable. A late intervention by the tenacious Monica McWilliams had secured the inclusion of a commitment to community reconciliation, as well as shared housing and education, a notable achievement.
The Loyalist parties, including iconic figures like Gusty Spence, had not only accepted the necessary compromises but confronted a Paisleyite demonstration against the Agreement outside the conference venue. Throughout the discussions, the Loyalists had been constructive and capable, led by the late David Ervine. Now all the action was confined to the Ulster Unionists.
Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and many others took advantage of the lull to stroll around the front of Castle Building. The calm outside was not mirrored in the offices of the UUP. A nervous David Trimble shuffled back and forth from British Prime Minister Tony Blair seeking assurances. His party was split and Trimble desperately resembled Oliver Twist as he asked the two Governments for more. Blair provided a number of letters of comfort, though of no legal value but a comfort all the same.
Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were at their best and while sympathetic, stood their ground. Trimble would have to make a call. To assist him in that moment, Blair spelt out that the status quo was not on offer but any collapse in the Talks would of necessity mean an enhanced role for Dublin. Trimble was caught in a dilemma, he had achieved a consensus on the principle of consent, but he did not care too much for a lot of the Agreement. However, he was determined that Unionism, for once would not be blamed for any failure. Armed with his letters of comfort and especially one on decommissioning, he finally became decisive, he was going with the draft.
Looking out the windows of the Irish Government rooms, we spotted the figure of Jeffrey Donaldson leaving the building and heading into the car park. Speculation rose that Trimble had agreed and the UUP delegation had divided but the bulk were staying loyal and sticking with Trimble.
Suddenly the game was on and a hastily convened Plenary meeting of all parties and the two Governments was called. Sinn Fein was still asking for more, but they had cashed in their chips in those last-minute deals and there was simply no appetite from the two Governments for further concessions.
George Mitchell quickly asked the party leaders for their assent. The necessary double majority was rapidly secured on both Nationalist and Unionist sides. It was all over in a very short time. There were gasps of realisation that after all the efforts, agreement had been reached. It was a huge sense of relief which engulfed the delegations. There was a lot of hugging and handshakes. Over the last two years of discussions and the many up and downs, deep friendships had been established across gaping political differences. Now the time arrived for the ceremonial signing. The only signatures on the Agreement are those of the two Governments, Bertie Ahern and Minister David Andrews on the Irish side and Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam on the British side. None of the party leaders in the North actually got to physically sign the document.
As the parties returned to their delegation rooms, the SDLP area became a party scene. The former Finnish Prime Minister Hari Holkeri went to the SDLP to congratulate them. Although a conservative himself, he told the Irish delegation that the SDLP was the only “normal and recognisable” political party in the North.
I ventured down to the Sinn Fein area to meet with them. I had worked closely with them over recent months. However, the party was in the business of packing up all their effects and heading back in a single group to West Belfast. Even in 1998 and the ceasefires holding, the east of the city around Stormont would not have been the most welcoming place for the Shinners. They would have their own events back at base in the Republican heartlands.
The Loyalists, PUP and UDP, were very satisfied. Their presence had been necessary to get a Unionist majority since the DUP and minor Unionist parties were opposed. They could tell their supporters that their members would be coming out of prison and relatively soon. Without the prisoner release programme, it would not have been possible to get the required majorities.
At the SDLP celebration, Mallon had the last and the wisest word. He said that it would take at least 7 years to fully implement the Agreement. We thought him unduly pessimistic but in retrospect he was erring on the other side.
On the Aer Corps flight back to Dublin airport, everybody was in tremendous form. A telephone call from one of Ireland’s most distinguished Ambassadors gave congratulations but added that the rest of our careers would be an anti-climax after Good Friday 1998.
Workers at Dublin airport welcomed our arrival, clapped and congratulated the returning Irish Government delegation. It is rare for public officials to be greeted in this way. The VIP area was opened up and drinks were flowing, despite the dry nature of Good Friday at that time. I noticed that those who had been in Belfast at the Talks were all very tired and just wanted to head home but the party was only starting. It was a lesson that the new Agreement was not the preserve of those who had negotiated it but was now public property.
The agreement had taken a long time to put together. It involved, not just the tough current negotiations but the work done on the number of intermediary efforts to secure the peace. However, it was also built on thousands of hours which had been spent well away from the limelight in building up one of the scarcest commodities in the North, mutual trust. As Irish Government officials, we had expended huge resources of time and effort in traipsing the highways and byways of the North, speaking with all shades of opinion and characters in all sections of the community. Loyalist and Unionist politicians, as well as SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin, all personally knew members of the Irish delegation. In the end, all those discussions in community halls, church missions, dingy bars and clubs had helped bring about the level of understanding necessary. The policy of Bertie Ahern in talking to everybody was so much more productive than the old days of boycotting, walkouts and demonization. In contrast, the British officials would never have met many of the local politicians and would call us on the Irish side to be briefed on who was who.
And what had been achieved was something special in terms of the history of the North. I have no time for those who say that the Good Friday Agreement is Sunningdale for slow learners. It is a political point scoring exercise and unworthy of those who use it. Where in Sunningdale is the commitment to fundamental police reform; the comprehensive equality agenda; the reform of the courts and judicial system; the guaranteed mechanism for both communities participation in Government; the parallel consent mechanism; the commitment to fairness and balance in symbols and emblems; the establishment of North/South bodies to operate certain functions on an all island basis; the bringing together of all administrations in these islands in a new British Irish Council; the effective abolition of all border fortifications; the new Human Rights Commissions; the commitment to parity of esteem for both traditions in the North; in addition to incorporating all the elements of the Anglo-Irish Agreement under the new British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC). The list could go on for several more paragraphs.
What was the secret of success after so many failures? Well, the time was right, there was a sense of exhaustion on all sides and we were blessed with the political leadership in Dublin, London and Washington. The Blair administration was something totally different from any previous British administration, with its informal and friendly approach and genuinely welcoming Irish Government input. They were determined to do business and give the peace process their full support.
The two Governments cooperation was the bedrock on which progress was achieved. Both Governments had an open-minded approach, leaving aside the group think and lack of initiative of the past. On this occasion, the unthinkable had been tried and it succeeded. Also, the leadership of the parties was of a high calibre, Mallon/Durkan, Trimble, Adams/McGuinness, Monica McWilliams, John Alderdice, David Ervine/Billy Hutchinson, Davy Adams, etc., all acted from the best possible motivation and the interests of their constituency. It was an impressive cast of characters.
It is true that some issues, such as policing reform and decommissioning were left for another day. It would not have been possible at that stage to conclude an agreement on these contentious issues but Canadian General, John de Chastelain and former British Minister Chris Patten later rose magnificently to the challenge and produced the goods.
Time has moved on and the peace the Agreement brought has become solidified and is somewhat taken for granted. The fortifications on the border were removed, the PSNI came into existence, new improved relations all around were established, etc. The people involved in the negotiations moved on. Some lost political office, others retired and sadly some died. I cannot think of that time without recalling, Martin McGuinness and Siobhan O’Hanlon from Sinn Féin, David Ervine and Billy Mitchell of the PUP, my boss and friend Dermot Gallagher, Secretary General of Foreign Affairs and the woman, who in many ways encapsulated the whole spirt that permeated the agreement, Mo Mowlam. Also, I think it is fair to say that the GFA would not have been possible without the great risks which former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds took during his brief period in office. All these have passed on. They were all a huge part of the process and the world is a poorer place without them.
There is now genuine concern that it may not be possible to put the institutions together again. The Brexit process has clearly undermined Anglo-Irish relations. It is a truism that progress in the North is only possible when the two Governments work together and have a common narrative. The changed political situation in Dublin with direct competition between Sinn Féin and the Government is also a complicating element.
However, one important lesson I learned during the GFA discussions was the value of persistence and the determination of Ahern/Blair to keep the process going, despite the many setbacks. Now is not the time for acceptance that the Institutions part of the Agreement is a failure.
I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been part of the small Irish Government Talks Team and to have been part of that historic moment in Irish history. In nearly 40 years of public service, I had never seen such a commonality of interest and teamwork between politicians and officials in that quest for peace. Open and frank internal discussions were held and differences aired without the slightest element of standing on one’s dignity or questioning of bone fides. There was no repeat of the type of group think and respecting sacred cows which is often prevalent in Irish public attitudes. These excellent working relations extended to our contacts with the British side. The two Governments often worked together seamlessly as a team.
The achievements of the Good Friday Agreement cannot be allowed to be thrown away.