23 February 2023 Edition
'We always knew it would be a battle a day'
Reflecting over the quarter of a century since those momentous days of April 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Peadar Whelan, then An Phoblacht’s Northern Editor, wonders at the enormity of what was achieved.
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In the North during those years leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the political landscape was dominated by the Orange Order and its bedfellows in Loyalist paramilitary groups and their demands to march over the rights of nationalist citizens in Garvaghy Road, Derry, Ardoyne, and the Ormeau Road in Belfast.
Nationalists were still being targeted by these loyalist gangs, while the unionist political leadership turned a myopic eye to this violence and refused to engage with Sinn Féin, an attitude that was supported by the pro-Unionist governments in London and Dublin.
And while the IRA had reinstated its cessation of military operations in August 1997, in the months after general elections in Ireland and Britain that brought Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair to power, the mood music, as they say, wasn’t good.
Yet, as the parties, under the stewardship of US appointed George Mitchell, gathered in Stormont, there was a curious optimism seeping out from the negotiations.
And this optimism obviously whet the appetite of the international media as truckloads, and I mean truckloads, of journalists set up camp in the car park and forecourt area of Castle Buildings where the talks were being held.
Castle Buildings are the nondescript administration blocks for the various ‘government’ departments, so these history making talks weren’t taking place in the splendour of Stormont Castle nor the opulent surroundings of Parliament buildings. No, they were filtered down into third class steerage.
On the one or two occasions that I, as Northern Editor, was required to go to Castle Buildings, I was struck by the darkness and functionality of the place. I was also surprised at the lack of any obvious or ‘in your face’ security.
As I drove to Stormont on Good Friday itself with some research material that the Sinn Féin negotiators needed, I was greeted by one of the Sinn Féin administration team and escorted through halls that were dimly lit and even though it was a bright spring day, there was this sense of depression in the soulless corridors.
At this point, the Agreement had actually been signed and photocopied editions were flying about like confetti and, in time honoured fashion, those with an eye to the occasion and the historical significance of what they were part of were running about, cornering Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Bairbre de Brun, Joe Cahill, Francie Molloy, Dodie McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, and anyone else who had the energy to hold a pen for an autograph.
• Drumcree marching dispute and the unionist parties refusal to fully embrace the deal lead to loyalist killings not least the three Quinn brothers burned to death in Ballymoney, as the killing of solicitor Rosemary Nelson
One of the things that struck me was the camp beds which were lying in a corner of one of the suite of rooms the party were using, evidence that people were literally burning the midnight oil in their efforts to thrash out some sort of consensus.
However, the big bizarre moment for me occurred when, out of the blue, Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam strode into the room looking for “Gerry and Martin” who were ensconced with some colleagues working on some media points or whatever and just planked herself in the middle of it all.
Looking back on that time, and particularly remembering the occasion, there was an enormous sense that Sinn Féin had achieved something of political significance, despite the array of anti-republican forces aligned against them, and this became clear in the series of briefings involving activists packed into halls and meetings places across the North.
An example of the opposition the party faced, which was reported during one briefing, was when Sinn Féin tried to solicit SDLP support for the release of prisoners, only for Seamus Mallon to retort snottily “We have no prisoners”!
And these gatherings seemed to underscore the contradiction at the heart of the Agreement, because even though it marked a positive move forward the spectre of Paisley hovering over the newly agreed accord told us that, at its heart, unionism was not for moving.
The 1974 Ulster Workers Council (UWC) strike, instigated by Paisley and other diehard unionists to destroy the Sunningdale Agreement, echoed through the memory banks of those of us old enough to have experienced it.
Whatever opportunities for progress the Good Friday Agreement offered were still set against the activities of those who perpetrated the mass killings in Omagh, only months after the accord was agreed.
The Drumcree marching dispute led to the loyalist killing of at least 10 people, not least the Quinn brothers Richard (10), Mark (9) and Jason (8) burned to death in their Ballymoney in July, as well as the killing of solicitor Rosemary Nelson in March 1999.
Of course, underpinning all this was the refusal of David Trimble’s unionist party to fully embrace the deal and effectively treating the Sinn Féin mandate as ‘second class’, so the assembly, voted for by the Northern electorate only met in fits and starts.
On reflection, there has been a sense of déjà vu with the DUP stonewalling over re-forming the Executive, but as Gerry Adams would say we always knew it would be “a battle a day”.