Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement: still some way to go

Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement: still some way to go
by Lisa Claire WHITTEN
7 November 2018

As part of the annual ESRC Festival of Social Science, the Open University in Belfast hosted a screening of “Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement”, followed by a panel discussion with former Alliance MLA Anna Lo, serving Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, and Reverend Harold Good.

Source: YouTube

“Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement” is based on a compilation of interviews with individuals who were involved in negotiations that lead to the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Put together by Dr Frances Morton (Open University), the documentary presents a considered and powerful collection of reflections on the Agreement and its legacy.

An incomplete, historic achievement

In the opening scene, US Senator George Mitchell — who brokered negotiations between political parties in Northern Ireland that led to the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement — described it as a “historic achievement” but one that did not by itself guarantee peace, stability or genuine reconciliation. This, Senator Mitchell contended, is something that did, and still does require the collective and continual effort of us all. Reinforcing his point, Senator Mitchell emphasised that it was “the people and elected officials” who were the “real heroes” behind the peace and relative stability of Northern Ireland in the two decades since.

Taoiseach at the time, Bertie Ahern, reminisced on the approach taken by himself and his British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the negotiations as they sought to capitalise on any area of agreement between Northern Ireland representatives. However small the area of agreement might be, the Taoiseach and Prime Minister attempted to use this as a foundation to built trust. Mr Ahern spoke of the “delight” he felt when he witnessed individuals from opposing sides talking to each other. In the early days, observing the exchange of even just a few words was a reason to be uplifted.

Professor Monica McWilliams, one of the signatories to the Agreement who represented the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, said she and her party colleagues were “amazed” when the negotiations first began, to discover that they were the only women involved at that point. Professor McWilliams went on to mention the huge contribution made by then British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, whose commitment to establishing peace in Northern Ireland was inspirational. Jonathan Powell who served as Prime Minister Blair’s Chief of Staff during the talks, also emphasised the significance of Mo Mowlam’s service which, he said, helped change the perception of the British government in the eyes of some Northern Ireland Nationalist parties.

In the documentary, Seamus Mallon (who represented the SDLP in the all-party negotiations), Lord Alderdice (who represented the Alliance Party in the talks), and Jonathan Powell all recognized the crucial role played by then US President Bill Clinton. His encouragement, they said, enabled the work to continue and, at key moments in the process, the US Administration’s influence led to breakthroughs that ultimately helped achieve the peace accord.

While, to varying degrees, all those interviewed recognised the value of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in creating peace, there was also an evident consensus that the work was not yet complete. Monica McWilliams made this clear in responding to her own rhetorical question, “Are we a reconciled people? Not we’re not.” Final words from the documentary went to Seamus Mallon’s with his poignant thought: “Rather than forgetting about the past, we should be learning from it.”

Looking back, looking forward

The screening of the documentary was followed by a brief panel discussion with former Alliance MLA Anna Lo, current Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly, and Reverend Harold Good (who played a key role in the peace process including witnessing the decommissioning of weapons alongside Father Alec Reid in 2005).

Speaking about the film, Anna Lo reflected on the “yearning for peace” which was evident in the remarks made by all interviewees featured. Gerry Kelly and Harold Good offered some of their personal memories of many sleepless nights they had during the all-party negotiations in 1998. Reverend Good recounted his joy when re-writing his Good Friday Homily that year at the very last minute; he entitled it “Hope on the Hill”, delivering it the same day the Agreement was signed.

Discussion soon moved to the ongoing stalemate in Northern Ireland politics since the collapse of the Executive in January 2017. The frustration of panellists and participants was clear. Anna Lo stressed that the Agreement was only the start of the process and that the principles it embodies are now “more important than ever”. Lo argued there is an urgent need for more generosity, compassion, openness and transparency in Northern Ireland politics, yet said that she is “still hopeful” for the future. Echoing Lo’s optimism and speaking as the only serving politician in the room, Gerry Kelly said that he retained a hopeful outlook for Northern Ireland, stating jokingly “you shouldn’t be in politics if you aren’t optimistic”.

In his reflections, Harold Good said that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was a “people’s agreement” and proposed that we each had a responsibility to uphold its principles and to continue to work together for the peace, reconciliation and good governance of Northern Ireland. The closing word came from C. S. Lewis via Rev. Good who quoted his observation: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”

Just as we pause to look back on how far we have come in the last two decades, perhaps we can hope that we will be doing the same again 20 years from now.

“Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement” is available to watch online for free through the Open University’s global online learning resource on the Good Friday Agreement.

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