‘The possible exists within the impossible’: Agreement 25 day one

‘The possible exists within the impossible’: Agreement 25 day one
17 April 2023

The highly anticipated Agreement 25 conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement kicked off on Monday 17th April in Whitla Hall at Queen’s University Belfast. Each day of the three-day conference focused on a different theme — Reflect, Renew, and Reimagine — while considering the legacy of the peace accord and the potential for the future. The event gathered several prominent contributors to the Agreement, including the chair of the Northern Ireland multi-party peace talks, Senator George J. Mitchell, in his first major speaking engagement in three years.

The Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Secretary Hillary R Clinton. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

With BBC Radio 4 broadcast journalist Andrea Catherwood hosting, day one of the conference opened with a welcome address from QUB President and Vice-Chancellor Ian Greer and QUB Students’ Union President Emma Murphy. QUB Chancellor and former US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton then took to the podium to pay tribute to the work, risk, and courage needed to reach across community lines for establishing peace in Northern Ireland. She made a special note of the contributions of women peacebuilders: “And of course there wouldn’t be a Good Friday Agreement to celebrate today if it were not for the women of Northern Ireland.”

Senator George J. Mitchell. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

Met with thunderous applause, Senator Mitchell gave his keynote address, full of reflections on the peace talks, learned insights, and encouragement to the leaders of Northern Ireland. “It is not a sign of weakness to resolve your differences by democratic and peaceful means. To the contrary, it is a sign of strength and wisdom,” he stated. 

Mitchell’s speech included a moment of silence for the lives lost to the violence of the Troubles and a tribute to the many contributors to the agreement. He also acknowledged the critics of the agreement but defended the achievements of the accord in light of the dramatic reduction in violence. Mitchell ended his address by affirming and humbly thanking Northern Ireland: “We need you. We need your ongoing patience, stamina, and perseverance. We need people who believe, who know that the possible exists within the impossible.”

Mary McAleese, Lord Paul Murphy, Tim O’Connor, Liz O’Donnell and Jonathan Powell. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

Former president of Ireland Professor Mary McAleese then chaired a panel discussing the relationship of the British and Irish governments during the peace talks. The panel included Paul Murphy (former secretary of state for Northern Ireland); Liz O’Donnell (former minister of state at the Department of Foreign Affairs); Tim O’Connor (former secretary general to the president of Ireland); and Jonathan Powell (former chief of staff to the UK prime minister). 

Panellists reviewed relations between the two governments, the urgency to stop the violence, the challenges of implementing the agreement, and the changing demographics of Northern Ireland. They also discussed the impact of Brexit, a problem the panellists concurred was unforeseen by the agreement architects. The session concluded with a call to get local institutions up and running again to establish political stability and promote economic investment. “Peace should go hand in hand with prosperity for Northern Ireland,” O’Donnell affirmed. 

Following lunch, attendees watched an In Memoriam video remembering the lives of the following peacebuilders who have passed on: John Hume, David Trimble, Dr Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam, Martin McGuinness, Seamus Mallon, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, and David Ervine. 

The next panel was divided into two sessions chaired by former Ambassador at the United Nations Nancy Soderberg focusing on the parties involved in the peace talks. The first session’s panellists included: Gerry Adams (former president of Sinn Féin), Reg Empey (former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party), Mark Durkan (former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Professor Monica McWilliams (co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition). 

Each panellist reflected on the “magic” of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and what they would have done differently if they could. They noted the inclusivity and comprehensiveness of the agreement as especially significant and expressed regret regarding lack of implementation, especially with regards to victims’ rights. In a particularly moving moment, Adams gave credit to the late David Trimble for the pressure he faced during the talks and a standing ovation was given to Trimble’s widow, Lady Daphne Trimble, who was present for the conference. “That’s reconciliation,” McWilliams commented. 

The former Chief Commissioner of the NI Human Rights Commission drew attention to the contribution of women and community leaders to the agreement and the importance of including women in Northern Irish politics. Empey noted that institutions must be up and running in order for inclusive participation to happen. Both he and Durkan reflected on the legacy of Trimble and concluded that the Nobel Peace laureate would be disappointed by the lack of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The session ended with Adams advising, “Listen, as much as speaking.”

The second session featured Lord John Alderdice (former Alliance Party leader and Northern Ireland Assembly Speaker); Ian Paisley Jr MP (former junior minister for the Democratic Unionist Party); Gary McMichael (former leader of the Ulster Democratic Party); and Dawn Purvis (former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party). 

Ambassador Soderberg proposed the same questions to the second session panellists, who also echoed regret regarding lack of implementation of the agreement and delay in addressing significant issues, such as disarmament. They reflected that the ceasefires created the opportunity for peace. Lord Alderdice spoke about the value of inclusivity and giving everyone a chance and leadership during the talks: “To be leaders — that’s what it was — you had to resolve conflict. One of the problems of today is that leaders, globally, feel that they are leaders if they conduct conflict rather than resolve it.”

The panel additionally pointed to the need for a functional assembly moving forward that is representative and inclusive of Northern Ireland. Alderdice suggested that moving away from a system of parallel consent to a system of qualified majority would promote more cross-community cooperation. Purvis contended an increase in the number of delegates in the assembly. Paisley, however, warned changes could lead to other problems with negotiations. 

Eamonn Ryan Irish Government, Bertie Ahern former Taoiseach, Colin Davidson artist, Mrs Mitchell, Senator George Mitchell, Chancellor Secretary Hillary R Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, Sir Tony Blair former UK Prime Minister, Vice Chancellor Ian Greer and Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

While the second panel was happening, a simultaneous event took place just outside Whitla Hall. Before a small audience of spectators and news cameras, a statue of George Mitchell was unveiled that will continue to overlook the QUB campus for years to come. This new addition to the campus captures the senator’s likeness in the form of a bronze bust that was created by renowned local artist Colin Davidson.

Mitchell was joined at the unveiling by US President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Bertie Ahern, all of whom praised the former senator. For his part, Mitchell expressed his gratitude upon receiving the honour of a dedicated statue. “A very large part of our hearts and of our emotions will forever be here in Northern Ireland,” he said to the small assembled crowd, speaking on behalf of himself and his wife, Heather MacLachlan.

Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Bertie Ahern. Agreement 25 conference. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Parkway Photography

After a short video featuring highlights of the peace talks, the final panel took to the stage for a discussion facilitated by Chancellor Hillary Clinton. Entitled “Guaranteeing Peace: The Guarantors”, the panel included Professor Bertie Ahern (former taoiseach of Ireland); Tony Blair (former prime minister of the UK); and Bill Clinton (former president of the United States). 

Bantering back and forth, the panellists shared personal accounts of their experiences during the peace talks and how they became involved. Blair credited the politicians in Northern Ireland as having the most difficult task and recalled the backlash he received due to shaking hands with Gerry Adams. “The only way you will ever make peace is if one side understands how the other side feels,” the former prime minister said. 

Ahern commented, “Everybody knew they had to make tough decisions, and the reality was everybody did,” while considering the feasibility of the peace talks. Bill Clinton discussed his experience building relationships with the key participants in the negotiations. He stated he was impressed how everyone he talked to had  “a good reason that went well beyond any kind of personal ambition” for their membership in a particular political party. 

When Hillary Clinton directed the conversation to the final week before the signing of the Agreement, Blair publicly thanked Ahern for his resiliency for continuing to work for peace while grieving the loss of his mother and facing intense criticism. He then discussed the importance of establishing relationships in order to have a “strategic conversation” for understanding each other’s problems. “You can have whatever technical agreement you like but if the spirit is not sitting alongside it, it will never work,” Blair concluded. 

Before the panel ended, President Clinton invited everyone present who was involved in the peace talks to stand for recognition of their contributions as the audience applauded. He concluded his time by citing the importance of including the “human dimension” in every conflict, as it was in the Northern Ireland peace process. Ahern and Blair ended the session with a call to action by getting back to work and doing the right thing, thus concluding the first day of the conference. 

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