Sunday with Miriam radio review: Entering history by the side door

Miriam O’Callaghan’s interview with two men who organised a concert before the Good Friday referendum featured fascinating insights

Unionist leader David Trimble, SDLP leader John Hume and Bono together on stage at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for a concert to promote a Yes vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. Photo by Paul Faith

Darragh McManus

RTÉ does anniversaries well. You can criticise their various failures to fully engage with present realities and challenge official narratives (God knows I have), but they really do mark anniversaries with quality, breadth, thoroughness and variety.

Twenty-five years on from the Good Friday Agreement — possibly the most seminal event in modern Irish history — RTÉ radio went into full commemoration mode, with a raft of pieces across Radio 1, RnaG and podcast. Drivetime broadcasting live from Derry and Morning Ireland likewise from Belfast, panel debates as Gaeilge, the collected reflections of Northern writers in poetry and essay.

But we’re going to concentrate on Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1, 10am). Often, the best way into a story can be through the side-door.

David Kerr is UUP, Tim Attwood is SDLP. On opposite sides, then, in that troubled time and place where, per Romeo and Juliet, “civil blood makes civil hands unclean”. But Kerr and Attwood came together for a very important reason: getting the deal over the line.

Details of this seismic realignment had been hammered out and agreed by both sides at the top level. However, the population now had to vote it through, north and south.

They needed a convincing majority in support of the agreement. The UUP and SDLP were the main advocates for a Yes vote. But fear, resentment and a stew of other emotions were threatening to derail the project.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that. At incredibly short notice, Attwood and Kerr — and a few key others — arranged for Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to be used for a concert, three days before the vote, featuring rising local rockers Ash, plus Good Friday Agreement architects David Trimble and John Hume… and guest-starring a certain Irish band called U2.

The piece was full of great stories and wry recollections from both men. The anxious background to it all; Jim Sheridan getting Bono involved; Bono then trying to get “every other musician on the planet” involved; Eamonn McCann sorting out the venue.

And, of course, that iconic photo of Trimble and Hume arms aloft on-stage, which became the defining visual image of the whole process.

I chuckled at the end of Kerr’s tale about Trimble and Ash giving a joint press conference the day of the show. The UUP leader spoke about his own life, university days, friends he’d “lost to the violence”, worrying about his children now…plus his unexpected love of Elvis.

“And,” Kerr concluded, “I could see even the guys in the band looking at him, thinking, ‘My God, you’re actually a very interesting person! You’re not as boring as we thought you were’.”

A fascinating interview which, in a funny way, provided more insight into, and understanding of, that epochal moment than any amount of strictly political reporting or discussion. Perhaps this is because life is more than politics: something that politicians, and people who cover it, often forget or choose to ignore.

Politics is important, yes, but so is music, fun, camaraderie, socialising, talking — you know, life itself.