Designing the Agreement: “An act of good ancestry”

Designing the Agreement: “An act of good ancestry” #GFA20
by Raquel GOMEZ
10 April 2018

On the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), some of the builders of the agreement were gathering at Queen’s University Belfast, to mark the two decades of the Agreement’s signing.

Under the heading, “Building Peace: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – Designing the Agreement”, Professor John Brewer welcomed all to a panel discussion organised by The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.

The focus was on personal views and experiences of the talks that led to the Agreement.

Former Secretary General to President of Ireland and Irish Government negotiator, Tim O’Connor, spoke directly to the students in the audience. He highlighted that the Agreement is about the future and new generations: “Our primary responsibility as a humans beings is to be good ancestors. I think hopefully the Good Friday Agreement was an act of good ancestry.”

Former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews, noted the complexity of the negotiations. From his own experience, people from different backgrounds — people with different ideas and opposite political thoughts — got closer. It was part of the talks process. In this vein, he remarked on the key figure of George Mitchell: “He was the heart of the talks; without him, literally, there would be no Good Friday Agreement.”

Andrews mentioned another distinct figures who served important roles during the talks, such as Mo Mowlam, Dermot Gallagher, John Hume and David Trimble.

Former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and SDLP Leader, Mark Durkan, highlighted that the success of the negotiations was its inclusiveness.

He singled out Mo Mowlam: “She was the one who created that sense of believe and that sense of purpose.”

Durkan emphasised the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding: “We can only get a solution with each other and for each other. Move from the demands against each other, to make a decisions with each other and for each other.”

Former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment and UUP Leader, Lord Reg Empey, distinguished between the Belfast Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement:. “There was a treaty between the British Government and the Irish Government [Belfast Agreement], and then there was an inter-party agreement between all of the parties which were participating on the talks [Good Friday Agreement]. There were two totally separate pieces negotiated. That is why we use the terminology of the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, we are talking about two different things.”

Empey pointed out that the agreement that is operating today was changed in 2006: “You can’t assume that the Good Friday Agreement we’re talking about today and is operating today; that is not the Good Friday Agreement that we negotiated. We negotiated a partnership model for very specific reasons. It was to ensure that each section of the community depended on the other. That was demonstrated by the joint election in the Assembly for those two posts [Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister], and that was taken away. We have to fix it.”

Empey ended with a remark of hope and noting improvements in society. The younger generation has grown up within a different experience: “At least we can take comfort for the fact we have a better place today than we had 20 years ago.”

Liz O’Donnell, former Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Irish Progressive Democrats, called the Agreement “a masterpiece of drafting, a milestone between the United Kingdom and Ireland”. For O’Donnell, the Agreement was a game changer because of its restructuring of Northern Ireland and the restructuring of the relationship between UK and Ireland.

From her perspective, the talks and discussions between all parties involved seemed to be a high risk for the governments: “The Good Friday Agreement was an act of the faith. We made a leap of faith.”

Finally, Conor Murphy, former Minister for Regional Development and Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh, emphasised that the Agreement was a big challenge. Furthermore, for him, the Agreement not was a fact of 1998, it was a process which started before 1998; the Good Friday Agreement involved a lot of players to create a peaceful space. Murphy highlighted that in the era post conflict, local networks and councils have been working to bring people together: “That is the key of the negotiations — people who engage each other.”

Murphy emphasised: “There is a difference from when I was here, in Queen’s University, as a student and today. There is a huge shift in society.”

O’Connor ended the panel discussion with tourism data, to show change over the past 20 years. Tourism of Ireland was established 17 years ago, as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Tourism is the fastest growing employing sector in Northern Ireland. The capacity of the hotels in Belfast has increased a 25%. The Lonely Planet nominated Belfast and Causeway Coast as a best tourist destination. Thirty years ago the number of visitors of the Giants Causeway it was 100,000; it was 1,000,000 in 2017.

“No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.” — Senator George Mitchell

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