Wednesday 12 December 2018

Eoghan Harris: 'Let us praise the men who made peace 20 years ago'

Jim Cogan's illustration
Jim Cogan's illustration
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

As we approach the end of 2018, I don't want to let the year die without marking the achievements of the eight men who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago.

"An amazing grace" was how I described the GFA at the Ulster Unionist conference the following year, asking delegates to embrace the "profoundly redemptive" potential of the agreement.

David Trimble had invited me to address the conference because I supported the right of unionists not to be bullied into the Republic.

As one of the few observers who could see events empathically from both the republican and unionist sides, I am well placed to say that each of the eight principal negotiators was indispensable.

Indispensable is not a word I use lightly. Philip Browne, the capable boss of the IRFU, looking beyond Joe Schmidt, chided those who think he is indispensable.

"My father in his wisdom used to say graveyards are full of people who thought they were indispensable."

Browne properly put on a brave face. But Schmidt is indispensable for two reasons.

First, the results he achieved are not likely to be repeated in the near future.

Second, to do what he did for Irish rugby means he is the best coach in the world.

Schmidt acknowledges his debt to Aristotle, who died over 2,000 years ago, but whose ideas will never die.

Aristotle did not believe in abstractions. For him, virtue had no existence separate from people who tried to make a habit of doing the right thing.

Schmidt's favourite Aristotelian aphorism was: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Neil Francis, writing in the Irish Independent, gave short shrift to the necessary fiction that things would be the same after Schmidt's departure. "Joe Schmidt is one of a kind and is irreplaceable."

Likewise, having studied the work of the men who gave us the Good Friday Agreement, I believe no other eight political "forwards" could have mauled their way to victory.

For those of you who were too young to remember, or those of you who were not paying close attention to the players and the game, here are eight snapshots of the principals.

John Hume, coach and captain, began as a community organiser decades before Obama made the job famous; a modern Daniel O'Connell who insisted that nothing morally wrong could ever be politically right.

Gerry Adams, a tough precocious product of the Catholic ghetto in Belfast, whose grip on that community took him from the IRA army council to the White House; several internal rivals regretted underestimating him.

Tony Blair, the first British prime minister since 1945 whose thinking on NI was entirely unencumbered by adverse memories of Irish neutrality in World War II.

David Trimble, unique amongst the leaders of modern mainstream unionism in seeking what he called an end to "the cold war on the island".

Bertie Ahern, shrewd, dogged, methodical and uncommonly clear-headed, the first Irish Taoiseach since De Valera to win three terms; a man of inexhaustible patience and flexibility in the face of facts; seeking an honourable compromise between nationalism and unionism.

George J Mitchell had been majority leader of the US Senate (a position largely invented by LBJ in the 1950s) before being given the task of chairing the NI negotiations. LBJ at full gallop couldn't have matched his interpersonal skills and genial charm at the critical negotiations in Castle Buildings during Easter 1998.

Martin McGuinness, the militant boy from the Bogside whose charismatic presence was a constant reassurance to the rank-and-file boys of the old brigade.

Seamus Mallon, the spiritual successor to Gerry Fitt and the pluralist tradition in northern nationalism that viewed the Provisional IRA as a species of domestic fascism and was not afraid to say so.

All eight went on to enjoy public esteem. But Ahern's epic achievement was pushed aside by a crew of sanctimonious critics in the Irish media.

Historically ignorant of Daniel O'Connell's cavalier conflation of private and political donations, and helped by a recession, they tried to deprive Ahern of the right of every political leader - to have his legacy judged in the round.

Long before the Good Friday Agreement, I had noticed how Ahern always kept a weather eye open to a possible break in the dark clouds over Northern Ireland - and also noted how he never let his foreign ministers go on solo runs.

Ahern had four foreign ministers in 10 years: Ray Burke, David Andrews, Brian Cowen and Dermot Ahern.

Historically, that's a high turnover. It suggests he didn't care who did the glamorous travelling abroad as long as he kept Northern Ireland policy himself.

Above all, he acted with good authority, ready to face down even close aides and DFA advisers on his own side for the sake of peace.

In this regard, there is no finer tribute to an Irish Taoiseach's nerve, wisdom and self-confidence than Senator Mitchell's accolade for Ahern's performance on Easter Week 1998, three days before the GFA was signed.

Mitchell had secured Blair's agreement to a ludicrously "green" draft agreement for cross-border bodies on the Sunday before Easter 1998.

The UUP unsurprisingly said they'd collapse the talks if the Ahern-Blair draft wasn't binned.

Ahern's mother died in the middle of all this. He went to Dublin and had just arrived when his staff told him of the UUP ultimatum, and advised him to hang tough and wait for the UUP to buckle.

Ahern agreed at first. But the night before the funeral he faced the fact that Trimble, a politician like himself, could not give way and keep control of his constituency.

George Mitchell's moving memoir, Making Peace, provides a powerful picture of Ahern's grace under pressure which is worth quoting at length as an antidote to the domestic pygmies who try to pollute Ahern's political legacy as a peacemaker.

"Ahern had been in Dublin getting ready to attend a last church service in honour of his mother when he was interrupted by a group of his aides... Ahern's aides recommended that he reject the demand.

"After the service he went for a long walk. Trailed at a discreet distance by his security detail, alone with his thoughts, he strolled the streets of his native Dublin. He knew every street, every storefront. His thoughts alternated between his beloved mother, whom he would bury tomorrow, and the negotiations at Stormont, which he desperately wanted to keep alive.

"Just two hours earlier he had decided not to renegotiate and not to go to Stormont the next morning. Now, he reconsidered that decision.

"At night, standing alone on a dark and silent Dublin street, the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland made the decision: the Irish Government would agree to renegotiate on Strand Two. It was a big decision by a big man. It made possible everything that followed."

Sunday Independent