We weren’t just ending the conflict, we were also putting in place arrangements to replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement, writes then junior minister
I was a newly appointed minister. It was a new government on both sides. The Blair government had just come in and Bertie Ahern and ourselves had just come in.
When we actually came in to government, there was no ceasefire in place. It didn’t come in until July 20 and then we were back in business after a period of decontamination in terms of Sinn Féin’s participation in the talks.
For me as a minister, I had to read myself into the brief. I was a bit apprehensive about the responsibility of it. I had been a Dáil deputy for five years and a spokeswoman for justice and all the rest of it but at the same time it was quite daunting to take on the brief of Northern Ireland.
Thankfully, because of previous governments, a lot of the groundwork documents had been done by Dick Spring, John Bruton, and Albert Reynolds. There was a legacy of prepared documents that I had to swot up on over the summer. And I was determined that I wasn’t going to make a mistake on language or perspective going into those talks.
Language was extremely important, as there were low levels of trust. As soon as Sinn Féin walked into the talks in September, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out.
So it was bizarre, it was revolving doors of participation. There were frequent walkouts, standoffs, and high judging.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was under ferocious pressure because it was the moderate party participating, but the DUP was outside the talks and barking and criticising every effort at concession.
We were always mindful of the UUP. I used to call it ‘Saving David’ (Trimble). He constantly needed to be saved from people within his own party and outside.
We were very close to articulating the nationalist perspective from Sinn Féin and from the SDLP point of view. A lot of the drafting of papers, the Irish government were heavily involved in that.
There was consistent input from civil servants from the British and Irish side, the best diplomats and officials, including from the departments of foreign affairs, the taoiseach, and justice.
It was a complex set of negotiations because this was negotiated across three levels, the three strands. Strand one was internal to the North, strand two was north-south, and strand three was east-west.
It was difficult to get started. Even to agree a substantial agenda was neuralgic to certain parties. People didn’t know each other well, which was a surprise to me.
You can keep an argument going for a long time if you don’t know your opponent. We ended up getting to know each other and that helped progress the negotiations because you can’t keep shouting at someone if you know them. We were talking so much that we were talked out.
To help that process, George Mitchell was fantastic. I’ve learnt a huge amount from Mr Mitchell, with his chairmanship of the talks. He allowed everyone to talk. He didn’t put off anyone, no matter how bigoted or perverse. And talking is better than the alternative.
He was as tough on Sinn Féin as he was on the Irish government. He really forced everybody to move from fixed positions.
In the spectrum of nationalism and unionism, everyone had to move. He was very good at that, forcing people out of fixed positions and into that space where you could contemplate compromise.
He was masterful and patient and respectful, and he introduced this into the negotiations, which was lacking in the North for many years. What was there was quite rough stuff and rude, sectarian, and aggressive language. People’s discourse was coarse and that had become normalised.
He wouldn’t allow the Women’s Coalition to be blaggarded, despite having been frequently looked down on and disregarded by the traditional parties, mostly the unionists.
By the time the talks started, there was a general understanding that constitutional change would be part of the overall settlement. The big constitutional issue which had caused problems in the North for many years turned out not to be the big thing. It was disarmament, demilitarisation, the release of prisoners, security issues.
The unionists found the north-south institutions very difficult, a kind of Trojan horse, in the belly of which was a united Ireland. There was huge resistance to those institutional deals, which they saw as a slippery slope.
Probably because I was a minister representing the Irish government, I didn’t experience any of that. I think it was different for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.
It was dismissed as an interloper, silly women who shouldn’t be there. My view was that they were hugely important actors in the whole process because they came from outside tribal politics — they came from academia and business, social science and social workers.
They added stability and were good at overcoming obstacles. It was lucky Mo Mowlam [the late Northern secretary] and I were there because usually women would not be at this kind of thing.
In terms of the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, I think it has been a milestone in the normalisation of relations between Britain and Ireland.
It really was a closure of a very vexed history. We weren’t just ending the conflict, we were putting in place arrangements to replace the Anglo Irish Agreement. And the constitutional change.
In many ways, it took 22 months to negotiate it but it took 10 years to implement. It took 10 years to get the institutions stable and the weapons incongruous on both sides.
While everybody thought it was an end game on that day, Good Friday, those of us who were close to it were quite apprehensive. We could see the fallibility of it and so many ends weren’t tied up. A lot of it was down to trust and hope.
Liz O’Donnell, was junior foreign affairs minister during the Good Friday Agreement talks