This Piece was written for the Andersonstown News 12/04/2018
Easter Saturday 1998 was gorgeous. I can remember standing at the gate of our house and a friend came along.
“What do you think?”
“Not sure, haven’t read it all but there’s a lot in it”
“I don’t know, was all the suffering worth it?”
The next day at the snowy Easter commemoration Martin Ferris gave a passionate speech, not asking for an endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement, but asking for consideration and debate, saying, “An agreement that will bring lasting peace and justice must move us beyond partition”.
A week later, at the first Sinn Féin Ard Fheis where the Good Friday Agreement was addressed, a decision was taken to postpone to allow republicans to discuss the document. In his speech Gerry Adams, then an MP once again having been re-elected the previous May, said, “So while the Agreement is not a settlement, it is a basis for advancement. It heralds a change in the status quo.” He also had much to say about Britain and the unionist veto.
In mid-May Sinn Féin held the decisive Ard Fheis. It often strikes me that discord regarding the peace agreement is remembered with pictures of David Trimble walking to the stage of a tense Waterfront in a suit and with his briefcase, like the Memory Man in the 39 Steps. The discord discussed forgets this was a tough deal for republicans. It is never the Dublin Sinn Féin delegates at that Ard Fheis invoking the words of Michael Collins about “stepping stones” that didn’t bring freedom but led to partition, or the Ormeau Road delegate who talked about the proposed Assembly “administering British rule in Ireland”. The GFA caused serious and focused contest.
If that Ard Fheis is remembered it is remembered for the political prisoners who were given day release, Pádraig Wilson, Martina Anderson and the so called “Balcombe Street men”. All came to the Ard Fheis to encourage giving principled compromise a chance. The atmosphere was electric.
That debate resonates today. Themes of peace process, commitment, taking chances, trusting in leadership, giving leadership in times of uncertainty.
And the anniversary leaves me with a few thoughts.
The Good Friday Agreement is not a nationalist let alone a republican document. It wasn’t even endorsed or signed by Sinn Féin on Good Friday 1998. It took debate and a considered commitment. However, once the decision was made that was it. Nationalists and republicans overwhelmingly voted in favour of it and remain committed to it. Through thick and thin. Sustained leadership is required in peace processes, long after the ink dries. And commitment can come late, the DUP have their version in the St Andrews Agreement, but it is underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. I was glad when they decided to do the right thing.
Significant changes did follow teh peace agreement. Many. The biggest for me? The RUC is gone. Yes, the PSNI is imperfect and there is a battle with the rearguard, mainly through the debate on legacy. And scrutiny and accountability mechanisms are threatened, again because of the rearguard. That must make us all roll up our sleeves, recommitted to ensuring we do not allow roll back.
We need to re-capture the positive confidence we had in 1998 and reduce the permissible negative space. If a deal can be reached it needs to be talked up and not destroyed before it is agreed. We remember and celebrate our achievements, not our failures. That is something for today’s British Government who watch from their absentee landlord sidelines as talks after talks fail while their predecessors who positively contributed speak about days of success.
Finally, the biggest gap then and now is legacy. Building the peace framework was the challenge for leaders in 1998. Delivering to those harmed by war is our challenge today.