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Liz O'Donnell: Hand of history dealt some parties in North better cards than others


Being part of the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 makes me feel old. Can it really be 15 years since the world media descended on snowy Stormont to capture what Tony Blair memorably called "the hand of history on our shoulders"? Despite the widespread euphoria, most of us knew that it was a beginning not an ending.

In fact, it was a cruel irony that the worst atrocity of the Troubles happened post-agreement on a sunny afternoon in August 1998 when 29 people and unborn twins died in the Omagh bombing. Only last week I listened to the relatives of those killed speak of their long quest for justice in the courts. For those people they are still tearing at the rubble for answers and accountability.

So, as another anniversary of the agreement comes around and history folds around those seminal events, it's valid to record how fallible it all was at the time.

At this remove, the days and weeks leading up to the final day are blurred. I do recall that as the final document came together, the scale of what we were attempting became scarier as the deadline set by chairman Senator George Mitchell drew close.

The breadth of change envisaged was awesome by any measure. Essentially, the reconstructing of politics and society in Northern Ireland on a completely new basis of equality. And that was just the political and constitutional arrangements on the island and between Ireland and the UK.

Ending the protracted conflict was a parallel but interlocking piece.

Mr Mitchell had given it everything he had, the talking was over. He set a deadline and said he was going back to the US if agreement could not be reached by that time. It was a good call. Time was not the problem, trust was. Sooner or later people were going to have to transcend their tribes and fears and make a collective leap of faith.

And that is what happened. David Trimble had been through the wringer over months of comprehensive negotiations. There were divided counsels within his party, walkouts were a regular feature against a soundtrack of vitriol by Ian Paisley from outside the talks.

There were rumblings of sellouts and of side deals. But in the end Mr Trimble, ready or not, and at great risk to his party's survival, made that leap and assented to the deal.

In the closing days, Mo Mowlam roamed the corridors in her stocking feet cajoling everyone despite her illness. Since Tony Blair's arrival she had been sidelined by his entourage.

The SDLP's Seamus Mallon was wary of more concessions being made to Sinn Fein as the deadline approached. He was right to be concerned. Increasingly, and perhaps inevitably, Sinn Fein, who had an arsenal at its back, received the lion's share of government attention as the political settlement took shape.

Like it or not, the peace process involved two sovereign governments and constitutional parties negotiating with an illegal army. Sinn Fein negotiators had brought all the discipline and stamina of war into the talks. No progress could be made on the political front in finding a replacement for the Anglo Irish Agreement and wider political reform unless the parallel conflict resolution process was advanced. This meant at times suspending our critical faculties as to their bona fides.

Bertie Ahern and Mr Blair were in lockdown negotiations to secure a final settlement, with Bill Clinton on the end of the phone. Mr Mitchell was masterful in his role.

The moderate parties like the SDLP, UUP, Alliance, Women's Coalition and others had to tolerate being excluded from discussions, as between the governments and republican and loyalist parties.

There were torturous meetings, famously termed "punishment meetings" by Mark Durkan, on the question of prisoner releases and OTRs (on the runs). Inevitably key issues were creatively fudged. Small wonder trust was in short supply in the unionist camp.

It was to take almost 10 years before key aspects of the agreement were delivered. The delay in giving up the IRA arsenal was so slow that trust among unionists was fatally eroded, rendering unstable the institutions for power sharing until 2008.

The irony is that, post-agreement, the two moderate parties, the SDLP and the UUP, fared worst electorally while the extremist big beasts of the DUP and Sinn Fein ended up as top dogs. The UUP was emasculated by the DUP, at one stage losing all but one of its Westminster seats.

For Sinn Fein, the agreement launched it as a political force North and South, with recent opinion polls in the Republic showing its support at the 20pc mark, a fact bemoaned by some but not by this writer. Because decommissioning the mindset of Sinn Fein and its embrace of politics was an indispensable part of the deal.

Irish Independent