Against all the odds, somehow peace prevailed

Against all the odds, somehow peace prevailed
Mo Mowlam: Northern Secretary was terminally ill during the talks.

David Trimble was isolated, Mo Mowlan was sick, Bertie Ahern’s mother died, and Bill Clinton was on the line from the US, but, somehow, peace was achieved, writes political correspondent, Juno McEnroe.

Brits out. That was a mantra and goal of republicans during the 1998 Easter week talks for a peace deal in the North.

The unionist community was fractured and feared any dilution of power from London. Concessions were integral to the talks, as leaders here and across the Atlantic kept the peace train moving.

In the 1990s, the order of the day in the North was bombs, shootings, killings, and mayhem. But the changed regimes in Dublin and London, the mediation role of the US, and seminal moments aligned republicans and unionists during that historic, long week of talks in Belfast.

So, what were the key moments leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, that day when the snow fell and leaders signed off on a pivotal peace accord?

The month and weeks beforehand were fraught with obstacles.

UUP leader, David Trimble, was alienated from the Orange Order and from DUP leader, Ian Paisley, but the Bangor-native was determined to go into the all-party Belfast talks.

Relations with then Northern Secretary, Mo Mowlam, were also tense.

Mo Mowlam, John Hume and Gerry Adams.
Mo Mowlam, John Hume and Gerry Adams.

Events were helped by a second IRA ceasefire the previous July, coupled with the election of Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail to power in Dublin and Tony Blair and Labour in London.

The stepping stones for a deal were in place and led to a dramatic finale, that Easter week in 1998, after a process of almost two years. A deadline set by talks chairman, ex-US senator, George Mitchell, of midnight, April 9, also focused minds.

The more-hardline DUP and Ian Paisley resented the involvement of Sinn Féin and Dublin in the talks, resulting in their refusal to engage.

As Bertie Ahern has said, the art of the possible in those negotiations was compromise. And that is what kept the more moderate UUP inside the tent.

At the beginning of April that year, talks at the office-type Castle Buildings in Belfast were at an intensive stage.

In the closing days, reporters slept on floors and chairs through the nights, a terminally-ill Mo Mowlam walked the corridors with an intravenous drip, Bertie Ahern’s mother died, and, all the while, US president, Bill Clinton, in Washington, was monitoring negotiations and on the phone.

It was a balancing act, trying to keep UUP on board, while giving concessions to Sinn Féin.

Unionists opposed strand two of the talks, setting up the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and devolving powers. There were differences on policing reforms, as well as how the proposed Stormont executive would function.

Bill Clinton and Arlene Foster.
Bill Clinton and Arlene Foster.

By April 7, an initial, 65-page document, with dozens of cross-border cooperations, was torpedoed by the UUP.

Then, Bertie Ahern’s mother, Julia, died.

On the day of her funeral, on Wednesday, April 8, he flew to Belfast for a breakfast meeting with Blair, but returned home in time for the requiem Mass.

At her graveside, officials whispered to him that he was needed back in Belfast, and so he returned for what turned out to be a key meeting and attempts to resolve a crisis in the talks over the NSMC.

File image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
File image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Amid the drama, Ian Paisley and protesters arrived outside the gates of Castle Buildings, warning of a sell-out of the unionist position. The cries were ignored.

History was gathering pace. And it climaxed early on Friday, just after George Mitchell’s deadline.

Both Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had met the two prime ministers and secured assurances on prisoner release. But there was a last-minute hurdle on decommissioning.

This was secured with a letter of comfort for unionists from Tony Blair and assurances from Bill Clinton.

George Mitchell then asked each party to personally come to him with assurances they were on-side.

Just before 6pm on the Friday, news broke that a deal was sealed. And the North changed forever.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

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