7 April 2023
Remembering Good Friday 1998
Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams takes us inside the last hours of the talks that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.
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In the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, over half a million people have been born in the North. Add to this those who were only children in 1998. So, perhaps a third of our population today has no experience of violence or recollection of the previous decades of conflict, unless their families were personally touched by it. The Good Friday Agreement is the basis for this new dispensation.
The negotiations, which led to the Agreement, started in June 1996. Sinn Féin was excluded. Castle Buildings, on the Stormont estate, was the main venue for these. Later, in September 1997 when Sinn Féin joined the negotiations, negotiators met in a number of locations in bi-lateral or multi-lateral sessions in Dublin Castle, Lancaster House in London, Downing St, Government Buildings in Dublin, and St. Luke’s in Drumcondra - Bertie Ahern’s Dublin Central constituency office.
I didn’t like Castle Buildings. No one did. It was a sick building – cramped, claustrophobic, with no fresh air. This was especially true in the last week of talks which saw an exhausting round of protracted meetings that lasted all day and late into the evenings. Even when we left Castle Buildings, the conversations continued by phone or in safe houses in West Belfast away from the prying eyes and ears of British intelligence. We hoped.
Early in that last week, Sinn Féin pressed the two governments on how they intended defining consent for Irish unity. This had been a consistent theme for us alongside equality issues. There was no doubt – no equivocation – ‘a majority is always 50% plus one’ we were told. We were also given a commitment by the British Prime Minister that the new constitutional legislation contained in the Agreement would repeal the Government of Ireland Act. This was a key objective of ours.
• Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell and Tony Blair
Senator George Mitchell chaired the talks. His schedule called for a deal to be concluded by midnight on Holy Thursday, 9 April. But as the meetings began that morning, it soon became clear that the unionists were not yet prepared to agree on an Executive or Cabinet structure or to the safeguards nationalists were demanding. The discussions continued through the night.
None of this was made any easier by the refusal of the Ulster Unionist Party to speak to us. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, had entered the talks in September 1997 flanked by the UDA and UVF and declaring that he was not going to negotiate with Sinn Féin. The DUP had absented themselves.
Slowly in the course of the Thursday night, progress was made. Agreement was reached on ensuring that the North/South Ministerial Council would be established through legislation and with Executive powers.
It was also agreed that the Assembly, the North/South Ministerial Council, and the British/Irish Council would all come into effect at the same time in order to reduce any possibility that unionists might succeed in frustrating the birth of any one of the institutions. Gradually bits of the jigsaw came together. By 3am, unionists had agreed to the establishment of an Executive with many of the safeguards we had argued for.
However, the issue of prisoners, as well as the equality agenda, demilitarisation and decommissioning were still unresolved. Martin McGuinness and I spent a lot of time with the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.
Earlier on the Thursday evening, Gerry Kelly and several others were dispatched to meet the British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and officials from the NIO. We wanted the prisoners out within a year. However, two years was our private fall-back position. The Brits wanted three years.
At one point, they presented Gerry with a new paper but refused to allow him to leave the room with it. Gerry told them that that wasn’t acceptable and left. A few minutes later, as he was telling us this, a breathless Mo Mowlam arrived with a copy of the document. She asked Gerry when we wanted the prisoners out. He said, immediately. She said that wasn’t possible. Gerry then remarked that it needed to be within a year. Mowlam went off to reflect on that.
• US President Bill Clinton
A few hours later, around 1am, President Clinton’s first call came through. Blair had been talking to him, so he knew that we were stuck on the prisoners’ issue. I explained to the President that enormous progress had been made so far but that bringing people on board required early releases.
Gerry Kelly went off to meet with the smaller loyalist parties to see if they would come on board our efforts. He rapped their door and put his head in. The large crowd of men sitting around on chairs and tables were surprised to see him. Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDA) and David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (UVF) came out into the corridor. Gerry explained the situation. If we both pressed on this issue, we believed we could reduce the timeframe further.
Ervine later told Gerry that they had already agreed with David Trimble a three-year period for prisoners’ release, and they didn’t want to upset Trimble at such a delicate point in the process.
By now, like everyone else, we were all dead tired. Surrounded by sleeping comrades, Martin, myself, Gerry Kelly, and a few others discussed all this. We decided to have another go at Blair. He and Bertie were sitting quietly talking together. Blair told me that Bertie was concerned about winning any future referendum on the Irish constitutional matters. Bertie himself said that Articles 2 and 3 could be a difficult issue for Fianna Fáil. I agreed with him.
Martin asked Blair where he was on the prisoner releases. After a brief but intense discussion, he said he would do it in two years. At the same time, another negotiation, potentially more perilous, was going on. The unionists were trying to secure a procedural linkage within the agreement between actual decommissioning and holding office in an Executive.
• Gary McMichael, Ulster Democratic Party (UDA)
• David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party (UVF)
We had consistently warned the governments that any preconditions on our participation in an Executive would be a serious mistake. Martin and I had three meetings with Blair and Ahern in the wee hours of Friday morning. They both knew that we weren’t negotiating for the IRA and that there was no possibility of us signing up to something we couldn’t deliver.
The British agreed that the Agreement should call on all parties to use their influence to achieve decommissioning in the context of the implementation of the overall agreement.
Around 2.30am, President Clinton had a long call with Senator Mitchell who briefed him on where he thought the talks were and how close a deal was. About 5am, President Clinton rang me again
Martin and I went up to see Senator Mitchell. His colleagues were now busy pulling together all the bits and pieces of paper that were to make up the agreement. We told him we were prepared to go to our party with a draft agreement but only if there were no further changes. We told the two governments the same thing.
David Trimble, who had left in the early hours of the morning, returned to learn that a final copy of the agreement would be ready for 11am. All the parties were told that a plenary was scheduled for noon.
In the UUP offices, a much-enlarged Unionist delegation was now going through the agreement clause-by-clause, line-by-line. It wasn’t going down well. The noon deadline came and passed.
• Jeffrey Donaldson, along with Arlene Foster, and several others stormed out of Stormont before the Agreement had been signed
Shortly after lunch, a unionist delegation, led by Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson, went to see Tony Blair. He told them that he would not change the agreement. But we later learned that Blair provided Trimble with a side letter which breached the terms of the agreement. Blair wrote that in his view the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement meant that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away.
Trimble was looking for a mechanism to exclude Sinn Féin Ministers from the Executive. While refusing to concede this, Blair said that he would keep it under review. This was no part of the agreement. It ran in the face of all our discussions. For some in Trimble’s party, this letter was not enough. Some wanted to walk away.
All this time, we, like everyone else, were sitting around waiting to learn the outcome of the unionists’ deliberations. Periodically, John Hume would drift in or some of us would wander into the Irish government’s rooms to get an update. Someone discovered the bar was open. Siobhán O’Hanlon went off for supplies of coke, bottled water and orange juice. Incidentally, thanks to the efforts of Siobhán and Sue Ramsey, our team was rarely without refreshments, including sandwiches from the kitchen in Government Buildings.
I spoke to Senator Mitchell. “The problem for David Trimble is that he didn’t think you were serious,” the Senator told me. “He expected Sinn Féin to blink first. He expected you to walk out. You haven’t. And he is running out of time.”
Not long after four o’clock, I called our core group together. By now, Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster, and several others had stormed out of the building.
I suggested to our group that we should press the Irish government to bring matters to a head. I met with senior officials and told them to tell the Taoiseach and British PM that “we are going home soon if things don’t shape up. Ask them to call the plenary. Otherwise, the unionists will dither forever.”
“Someone needs to put testicles on David Trimble,” another official agreed. The most senior person agreed to speak to Blair and Ahern. We waited. Minutes later, the messenger returned. “Message delivered,” he told us.
Shortly afterwards, we were told that a plenary was set for five. Apparently, David Trimble had phoned the Senator at 4.45pm to tell him the UUP was ready to sign up.
I went up to see the Senator with Martin and we thanked him and Martha Pope who had been a consistent and positive influence through all the deliberations.
• Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble phoned George Mitchell at 4.45pm and told him the UUP was ready to sign up
When we returned to our office, I pulled our people together. I congratulated them all. A lot of people depended on us in these negotiations. I felt very proud to be part of our effort. Everyone had done their best.
By the time we got to the conference room, it was packed. Additional members of all the parties stood together behind their delegations. There was an air of quiet excitement. Television cameras were allowed in and the plenary was broadcast live. Senator Mitchell invited each of the parties to say whether they supported the Agreement. When it was my turn, I explained that we would have to bring it back to our party. But I said that our delegation would be urging support for the agreement.
When it came to David Trimble’s turn, he seemed to hesitate for a split second when Senator Mitchell invited him to speak. He reddened slightly as he used a pencil to stab the microphone button on the table before him. “Yes,” he said.
There were smiles all round. Even some of the unionists were smiling. When all the leaders had said their piece, the Senator closed the proceedings and there was sustained applause. For a few minutes, everyone milled around shaking hands. Some people were hugging each other. Then, it was outside to talk to the press.
That was 10 April 1998. It is hard to believe that was 25 years ago.
The Good Friday Agreement marked an historic and defining point of change in all our lives. However, George Mitchell got it exactly right when he said that getting the agreement was the easy bit, implementing it would be another matter.
Progress since then has been slow and torturous. There are key elements of the Agreement not yet implemented and currently there are no functioning institutions as the unionists – now the DUP – try to delay change.
But progress has been made. Not least in the number of people who are alive today who might otherwise have died through conflict.
As its heart, the Good Friday Agreement is about change; political, social, economic, and constitutional. It emerged out of a hesitant co-operative effort by nationalist and republican Ireland to put in place a peace process.
Sinn Féin never pretended the Good Friday Agreement was a settlement. Neither did we pretend that it delivered the Proclamation of 1916. It did however establish, for the first time a peaceful way and a mechanism to end the Union with England. Our experience also reinforced for our leadership the merits (and risks) of negotiations as a means of struggle.
• Mo Mowlam, John Hume and Gerry Adams at the inauguration of President Mary McAleese, November 1997
After the Agreement, British and Irish establishments presumed that the SDLP and the UUP would share the main political posts and that the Northern statelet would continue with minimum changes. Of course, that is not what happened. A process of change once started is difficult to stop.
It can be delayed and perhaps temporarily diluted but provided those of us who want maximum change can stay united and strategically focussed, while building our political strength and being resolute but generous, then what some thought to be impossible becomes possible.
So, despite the current difficulties the future looks bright. This is indeed a decade of opportunity.
The Good Friday Agreement has created a democratic and peaceful path to reunification. Our task is to make it happen.
An Phoblacht, Issue 1, 2023, Good Friday Agreement — Special Edition, available here
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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures