Peaceful Class of ’98 meet for final hurrah

IF recent events showed a week can be a long time in politics, then a decade can be an eternity.

The signatories and negotiators of the Good Friday agreement, who made history 10 years ago by opening the pathway to peace, gathered in Belfast yesterday to discuss how things have changed since, and look back at some of their personal memories of the intense negotiations.

Chief among them was the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, on his last official visit to the north before he steps down next month; also present was Liz O’Donnell, a one-time Progressive Democrats junior minister who sat on the negotiation table on behalf of the government but has since lost her Dáil seat; there was John Hume, the former SDLP leader who has since resigned from politics.

Another has-been, former British prime minister, Tony Blair, who had a key role in the talks, was not present at yesterday’s events.

The “peacemakers” have all since suffered some fall from grace. But for those who said all political careers end in failure, the group demonstrated that the greatest political achievements have a more lasting effect than most disgraces or controversies.

Like the 1998 negotiations themselves, things got off to a bad start for yesterday’s talks. The Government jet was struck by lightning as it landed in Belfast Airport.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get here at all, the Government Jet was hit by lightning on the way,” the Taoiseach said as he arrived for the symposium to discuss the Good Friday agreement.

He could have been referring to the equally shaky negotiations on the document itself, as the class of ‘98 remembered what was probably the longest week in all their political careers.

The Taoiseach recalled yesterday when the chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell, put pressure on all sides to come up with an agreement by Holy Thursday. “Everybody knew this was going to be just one tough, long, intensive week,” he said.

It was a week, the audience were told, when Mr Ahern wanted to “plant one on David Trimble”, when the late Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam threw off her wig before storming out of the room in her bare feet.

“We had some dingdongs and there was a fair level of abuse,” said the Taoiseach. “I saw people lose their head. I saw people flipping the lid. But they came back the following morning and were sane again,” he said.

Dawn Purvis of the PUP recalled being “afraid” of Sinn Féin negotiators who “hung around in packs”. But she soon realised that they “held doors open for you when some of the unionist delegation didn’t”. With this, she said, “humanness crept in”.

But hunger overtook humanness on the morning the agreement was signed, SDLP leader Mark Durkan recalled, when a breakfast of bacon sandwiches was served to those who had spent the whole night negotiating.

A group of SDLP members were told by Sinn Féin delegates “these ones are taken”.

To which the late PUP leader, David Irvine, remarked: “Typical Catholics, its Good Friday and you can’t eat it, but you still took the bite out of it so the prods couldn’t get at it.”

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