Reluctant Sinn Féin became a fierce protector of the Good Friday Agreement

While Sinn Féin has now styled itself as the fierce protector of the Good Friday Agreement, at the time it was viewed as a reluctant participant in the process.

While Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have become synonymous with the deal which has cemented 20 years of peace in Northern Ireland, during those now historic meetings of Easter Week, they often frustrated others around the table and stunted progress through delay tactics.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern remembers that a lot of the discussions centred around “trying to convince Gerry that he would convince others”.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness outside the GPO in 1986.

On the Wednesday of that week, as negotiators thought they were finally getting close to an agreement Mr Ahern said Sinn Féin came in with “50 or 60 items” to add to the agenda.

Likewise, Mark Durkan of the SDLP recently remembered Mr Adams as setting many “conditions and quibbles” in talks to drag the process out, whether that be ahead of the Good Friday Agreement or later on decommissioning.

“Like Sinn Féin at large he had a habit of milking — not doing anything until he waited long enough to milk something more by doing it,” he said.

And even when a deal was eventually struck, after around seven months of intense wrangling, Mr Ahern remembers Sinn Féin being the only group to attach a clause to its handshake, an element that he is “at pains” to remind people of.

Everyone agreed and Sinn Féin said ‘agreed and will consult’ — which was to go to the IRA.

“And there was a bit of dealing after that to get everything right before the referendum in May,” said Mr Ahern.

Mr Adams has even alluded to this requirement to constantly go back to the grassroots and indeed consult with the IRA to ensure it was onside. He said even after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there was “trepidation about how would the Republican base respond”.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin claimed that any delays came from a need to ensure that the agreement was “the best deal” possible.

“If you are going to put an end to a 30-year conflict then the deal needs to be watertight,” said Mr Ó Broin, who was working with the party in Belfast at the time.

It was after much to-ing and fro-ing, with draft and redrafting of the text and consultations that the 1998 deal was eventually signed.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin members will argue that as far back as 1986 they had called for all-party negotiations.

But more than a decade before the Good Friday Agreement was eventually signed their moderate counterparts the SDLP — as well as the UUP on the other end of the political divide — were deeply committed to achieving peace.

They must be recognised as the architects of this peace.

It was John Hume who initially brought Gerry Adams in from the cold and brokered a seat for him in talks.

Albert Reynolds, Gerry Adams and John Hume in 1996.

He first made contact with the Sinn Féin president in 1998 to enter discussions.

On January 11, 1988, Mr Adams and Mr Hume met for several hours. That was despite protestations from some quarters including the SDLP.

In his book ‘John Hume and the SDLP’, Gerard Murray said the dialogue between Mr Hume and Mr Adams at that point signified the “embryonic stages of drawing Sinn Féin into the mainstream political process”.

“The substance of these talks laid the basis for the later Hume/Adams dialogue in 1993 which was of paramount importance in that it led to the IRA cease-fire in August 1994,” he wrote.

In the lead-up to that ceasefire, Mr Hume was again instrumental in coaxing Sinn Féin into engagement and again he faced criticism and claims of a “monumental error of judgment” in dealing with Mr Adams.

After meeting with then British prime minister John Major in 1993 he famously claimed that he “didn’t give two balls of roasted snow” about the criticisms he faced for trying to bring Sinn Féin into talks.

While Sinn Féin now strongly stands by the Belfast Agreement and stresses the need to protect it, its foot-dragging and the commitment of Mr Hume to include it in the process must not be forgotten.


Related Articles

Forgiveness plays central and necessary part in reconciliation – President Higgins

Against all the odds, somehow peace prevailed

Unionism seems stuck in long-term no-man’s-land

Timeline of events before and after the Good Friday Agreement

More in this Section

Wishing A&E veteran well on his next chapter

Time for something radical? We remain captives of convention

Aretha Franklin: The epitome of authenticity

Heritage tax breaks: Review needed


More From The Irish Examiner