‘This is home for everybody’: Agreement 25 day two
by Sarah BERNT and Allan LEONARD
18 March 2023
Day two of the Agreement 25 conference to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement featured addresses by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Tánaiste Micheál Martin, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, as well as a series of panel discussions, including “The Good Friday Agreement: A Template for Resolving Global Conflict”. Delegates also learned from visiting an exhibition of the work of Politics in Action, a youth-driven civic education programme.
At the outset of the second day of the conference, hosted by US broadcast journalist Donie O’Sullivan, attendees were again welcomed by Professor Ian Greer, followed by a brief video address from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. In his remarks, Guterres highlighted the positive example that the agreement set for the world, with particular emphasis on the role of women as trailblazers in the peace process and of collaboration among the international community.
Audience members next heard from Chris Heaton-Harris (secretary of state for Northern Ireland) and Micheál Martin (deuty head of Irish Government), both of whom stressed the challenges still ahead in implementing the agreement and the importance of effective inter-government cooperation even in the face of disagreements.
The first panel on Tuesday featured current leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. The panel was moderated by Mark Simpson, a broadcast journalist for the BBC who covered the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Speakers included Doug Beattie (leader of UUP); Mary Lou McDonald (president of Sinn Féin); Colum Eastwood (leader of SDLP); Naomi Long (leader of Alliance Party); and Emma Little-Pengelly (former junior minister of DUP).
After each panellist reflected on the historic magnitude of the agreement and its personal significance for them, the conversation turned to the current impasse that has led to the breakdown of the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland. Leaders from other parties criticised the DUP’s decision to boycott Stormont over disagreements regarding the implementation of Brexit, with Little-Pengelly defending her party’s position. “Sometimes it is right to say, ‘No, this isn’t fair,’” she said, as she asserted that the concerns of unionists have not been sufficiently listened to or addressed regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
At one point Little-Pengelly drew criticism from fellow unionist Beattie, who argued that if Sinn Féin was not allowed to take its place in government as the largest elected party, it would mean “trampling all over democracy here in Northern Ireland”. Long went one step further and argued that the agreement should be reformed so as to prevent either of the two main parties from being able to use their veto to prevent the functioning of government.
The panel concluded with speakers sharing their vision for the next 25 years in Northern Ireland. Despite clear differences in opinion regarding the status of Northern Ireland going forward, both sides acknowledged the need for continued cooperation. “Regardless of the outcome, this is my home,” remarked Long:
“It is the home for the people who I represent and it is the home for… everybody whether a united Ireland is something they want, or whether it’s something they’re indifferent to, or whether it’s something that they don’t want. It will still be their home and we have to learn to accommodate each other in Northern Ireland…”
The second panel commenced following brief remarks by QUB student Jamie-Lukas Campbell and US Ambassador to the UK Jane Hartley, both of whom spoke to the close relationship between the US and Northern Ireland. US Ambassador Mitchell B. Reiss took to the stage to chair the panel about using the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as a template for resolving global conflict. Speakers included Dr Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland); Dr Amanda Sloat (special assistant to the US President); Congressman Richard E. Neal (ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee in the US House of Representatives); and Maroš Šefčovič (European Commission vice-president for interinstitutional relations and foresight).
The afternoon allowed conference-goers to attend one of four panels scattered across the QUB campus on the following themes: rights and social justice; peacebuilding; legacy; or the dynamics of peace and conflict.
Next door at the Peter Froggatt Centre delegates and dignitaries visited an exhibition of 250 young people who participated in activities organised by Politics in Action, which works with cross-community groups of schools and with youth work partners to help young people identify issues that are important to them and to research these issues and present them to local politicians. The event, “What Peace Means to Me”, was an opportunity for the programme participants to tell conference visitors about the issues that their school group have been working on.
Several visitors where high-profile guests, such as Northern Ireland Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris, Minister of State Steve Baker, Cherie Blair, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and US Special Envoy Joseph Kennedy III.
In the afternoon, the young people attended two panel discussions — women and leadership; and young politicians. These were finished with a commemorative poem written and read by student Jack McBride:
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