Issue 3-2023-200dpi

23 February 2023 Edition

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The last steps to the Good Friday Agreement

• Gerry Kelly, Pat Doherty, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness

Former Sinn Féin vice president Pat Doherty was part of the Sinn Féin negotiating team that concluded the Good Friday Agreement. Here he takes us from the first meetings in Castle Buildings to the long Good Friday that culminated in the historic agreement.

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In the aftermath of the restoration of the IRA cessation in 1997, the first meeting between the British Government and the Sinn Féin leadership took place in Castle Buildings, Stormont estate on 13 October 1997. It lasted less than 30 minutes.

On the British Government side were Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mo Mowlan, Paul Murphy, Jonathan Powell, Jonathan Stephens from the Northern Ireland Office, and two note takers. Present from Sinn Féin were Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, myself, and Siobhan O’Hanlon. There was a table between the two delegations with some flowers and cakes on it.

The meeting opened with a short exchange and Gerry Adams introduced our delegation. Gerry presented Tony Blair with a Celtic cross made out of pressed Irish turf, and told Tony Blair that, “This was the last bit of Irish soil we wanted the British Government to own”.

Tony Blair thanked Gerry and said he has heard that, “You have the gift of saying the hard thing softly”, and so the tone was set for all of the numerous meetings that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

During the course of the discussions, Tony Blair told us that he “understood more about history than you think” and then said, “I have read about you guys, about your youth etc, and those from other communities, I will deal with you in good faith but I have to have that back”. 

We did not directly respond to the comments, but we had done a bit of reading ourselves and we were certainly committed to good faith negotiations.

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Gerry Adams told the British delegation that, “There was a need for constitutional change and that the British Government have to be the engine for change”. Martin McGuinness told the British delegation that one of the issues was the mindset of the Unionist parties, summed up by the previous leader of the UUP, Jim Molyneaux, who said in relation to the last ceasefire, “That it was the most destabilising thing that had occurred”, adding, “The British Government need to recognize that this is a political problem that needs to be resolved”. 

Martin continued stating that “We are sitting in a room with people who will not speak to us and some other parties”. Martin concluded that, “The people of Derry are not interested in an apology for Bloody Sunday, that they want an International Public Inquiry”. I added that, “Partition can be addressed, there is nothing more that the people of Ireland want”. 

Tony Blair concluded the meeting by saying, “The political will is there, the only thing I stress again, we would be in an impossible situation is violence began again, subject to that, there will be equality of treatment, we want a settlement which is lasting”. 

The Irish Government under the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had appointed three senior civil servants to be his leading personnel in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. They were Paddy Teahon, Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach; Dermot Gallagher, Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs; and Tim Dalton, Secretary General of the Department of Justice. In a recent conversation with my colleague Rita O’Hare, we both agreed that we were blessed with having those able men to work with. Martin Mansergh was also involved as the Taoiseach’s Special Advisor. 

It was clear right from the start of the negotiations that there were great tensions within and between the various Unionist parties. At the start of the negotiations under the American Senator George Mitchell, the DUP party walked out at the decision to include Sinn Féin. The UUP Party arrived at the talks flanked by various loyalist parties to bolster their credentials. 

Castle Building Stormont estate was the venue for the negotiations, and it was not a well-constructed building for talks. There seemed to be double swinging doors every 10 yards in all the various corridors. I went through one of those double swing doors one late morning to see two Unionists having a big row at the other swing door. One of the Unionists, a tall man, was very clearly telling the other man that he was nothing but a “jumped up grocer”. He then took a swing at him but missed. Both were elected as MLAs to the first Assembly Election in June 1998.

On another occasion, Mo Mowlan came through the swing door next to the Sinn Féin office wearing an Easter Lily, well pinned on, only to meet Martin McGuinness who, without asking her, took Easter Lily from her asking her did she want a Unionist walk-out. 

One of my responsibilities was around the release of republican prisoners and to this end, we were dealing with NIO Officials. These officials did not want prisoners released until they had finished their sentence. We wanted them all out the following morning. At the end of the negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement set a release date of two years. 

Another responsibility was the briefing of the media from time to time and doing many meetings with our base around the development of the negotiations. We also did as many meetings as possible with the other parties that would talk to us. 

I found the SDLP particularly arrogant, although John Hume was always pleasant. Seamus Mallon told us on one occasion that the SDLP did not have any prisoners. They also did not have a clear ideological core, hence their current standing in the Six Counties. 

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• During negotiations and meetings Pat found the SDLP particularly arrogant, although John Hume was always pleasant

Senator George Mitchell was very straightforward in any of the dealings we had with him, telling us on the afternoon of Good Friday, “When you have the numbers, take the vote”.

On the morning of Good Friday, all our delegation were given the latest updated draft of the Good Friday Agreement. We were all very tired. Some of us had tried to sleep on available chairs, others like Gerry Kelly had slept on the floor, others again got no sleep. 

Gerry Adams told us all to read the section we were involved in negotiating and then read all of the document. I was sitting beside Francie Molly when he asked me, “How do we judge all of this document?”. I said that if we get if across a certain line, we can find energy and commitment to the many issues in order to push them on.

After an hour or more, we both finished reading and Francie said, “I think we have just crossed the line”. I replied saying, that I thought we had just landed on the line. Our delegation was told that there would be a plenary session of all parties at 12 noon. Of course, it did not happen until much later that evening. 

The Agreement was announced that evening with the hand of history on everyone’s shoulders. Referendums were held North and South in May 1998, being carried in both jurisdictions and then the Assembly Elections were held in June 1998. 

I was elected as an MLA for West Tyrone. Unfortunately, the horrendous Omagh bomb exploded on 15 August 1998, with the loss of 28 people and two unborn twins and many, many more were injured. 

Even though we had secured an agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, for a new way forward, it was very clear that we had still a lot of political work to do. 

• Pat Doherty was Sinn Féin vice-president from 1988 to 2009. He represented West Tyrone as an MP from 2001 to 2017, and as an MLA from 1998 to 2012.

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