The importance of Good Friday Agreement archives for reflection
by Gijs HOEKZEMA
3 April 2023
To mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and the National Archives Ireland organized a panel discussion considering a selection of state records held in the archives — released under the 20-year rule — relating to the negotiation of the peace accord. These documents were used by the panellists to reflect upon the events and atmosphere of the time and their significance in the shared history of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The event was chaired by Miriam O’Callaghan (current affairs presenter and broadcaster, RTÉ). The panel consisted of Glenn Patterson (writer and director, Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB)), Professor Marie Coleman (historian, QUB), David Donoghue (former civil servant and writer), Amanda Dunsmore (artist), and Malachi O’Doherty (writer). Each of the panel members gave an individual presentation from their own perspectives as a historian, diplomat, writer, and artist, and spoke about the importance of the public record in preserving a collective memory.
The event was opened by the acting director of PRONI, David Huddleston, and the director of the National Archives Ireland, Orlaith McBride, who explained that this was the first time that the two organisations hosted such an event together.
After an introduction by Miriam O’Callaghan, Glenn Patterson spoke about how around the time of the signing of the Belfast Agreement, he often got asked the question, “What are the people on the street saying?” His answer always was, “They just want to see a resolution.” Six weeks later, the results of the referendum on the Belfast Agreement came in: in Northern Ireland, 71% voted in favour of the agreement. He expected a “Dick van Dyke moment” at that time, with people singing on the streets. This moment, as he explained, did not come until 24 years later in the final episode of Derry Girls. Patterson described this as an “Orla McCool moment”, referring to one of the characters of the show — after she voted for the referendum, she dances through the walled city of Derry/Londonderry to the song Sunchyme by Dario G. This reminded Patterson of the feeling of possibility and opportunity at the time of the referendum on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. For Patterson, the agreement was not a choice between worst and a bit better than worst, but between the worst and best possible outcome.
Professor Marie Coleman lived in the Republic of Ireland at the time the agreement was signed. She explained that even though people living in the Republic of Ireland were not as much affected by the conflict as the people living in Northern Ireland, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement hugely mattered to people in the Republic at the time. From a professional historian’s perspective, she explained that there was little new about the B/GFA, especially in strand one; the idea of power sharing was already introduced in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 but had failed. What was different this time, according to Coleman, was that all the parties had learned from the failed Sunningdale Agreement. Coleman ended her talk by expressing the importance of explaining the significance of the Troubles and the peace process to new generations, since many of them were not alive at the time.
David Donoghue was in the room working on behalf of the Irish Government during the negotiations leading up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. He gave the audience a flavour of how the negotiations went during its final week, explaining that it went quite differently from the way they had expected. The need for both prime ministers to be involved for three days was, for example, something they had not expected. He furthermore explained how George Mitchell, co-chair of the negotiations, put a de facto deadline on the negotiations, by saying that he was leaving for New York to visit his family during the Easter Weekend and did not have the intention of returning to Belfast. Since strand two of the agreement took up most of the time of the negotiations, there needed to be more time left to discuss the other parts, Donoghue argued.
In the early hours of Good Friday, Donoghue explained, everyone had the feeling that “the moment has come”. This changed around midday with the crisis within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and Donoghue explained that the optimistic feeling of the morning was replaced with the feeling that “it was all over again”. But then Mitchell called, saying that David Trimble, as party leader, had resolved the crisis within UUP, and that he was ready to go for the agreement. Overall, Donoghue said, “The Good Friday Agreement is the right approach, but it really has not been given a chance.”
Amanda Dunsmore presented some of her artworks during her presentation. From 1997 to 1998, Dunsmore was an artist in residence in the HM Prison Maze, working with loyalist and republican prisoners. Because she had to bring in a lot of equipment that was previously not allowed into the prison, she got to know the prison officers very well. One of the prison officers was Billy Hull, who over a period of 15 years at the height of the conflict repeatedly disobeyed an order to destroy materials. Instead, he hid them and put them on display later. Since 2004, these materials could not be exhibited in Northern Ireland because of concerns for Billy Hull’s safety. Therefore, Dunsmore made an artwork called Billy’s Museum, in which she documented the materials.
Another project of Dunsmore is called Agreement, in which she filmed 14 video portraits of individuals involved in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The portraits are all silent, to allow the audience a moment of reflection and to gain a deeper understanding of the individuals. Dunsmore explained that it was very important for her to also show the women involved in the negotiations, with Marjorie Mowlam being an inspiration for her to make these portraits.
Dunsmore ended her talk by saying that societies need time for reflection. She sees it as her task as an artist to collect the materials so that future generations also have the possibility to reflect.
The last speaker was Malachi O’Doherty, who explained that he made extensive use of the archives during lockdown when working on his book, The Year of Chaos: Northern Ireland on the Brink of Civil War, 1971–1972. For this book, he read many summaries made by the Irish Government of the talks between Edward Heath, Brian Faulkner, and Jack Lynch. While he was analysing the archival documents, it struck him how radical and unthinkable the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement would have seemed in 1972.
The presentation of the panel members showed the importance of documenting historic events so that future generations, having not lived through these moments, also have the possibility to reflect on them.
The original signed document of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is back in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1998, and is on display at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast until 12 April.
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