Good Friday 1998: A benign beauty is born.
[THIS BLOG IS TAKING A TWO-WEEK BREAK OVER EASTER, RETURNING ON 23 APRIL. PLEASE STAY WITH US!]
I prefer Easter to Christmas. The former is calmer, more restful, a mercifully shorter but still decent collective pause in the rhythm of everyday life and, despite the almost total secularisation of both, Easter engages deeper spiritual impulses. Easter also marks the definitive and welcome emergence from winter rather than being a distraction from its deepest doldrums.
At the same time, just as all Christmases seem to roll into one hybrid memory, I can remember the specifics of very few Easters. But I do remember that of 1998 for two reasons. First, I was between jobs, having resigned from one in Shannon at the beginning of Holy Week to start a new one in Dublin on Easter Tuesday. Second, because I was at home, I was able to follow every public twist and turn in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement.
The latter was of more than general interest to me because I worked in the Anglo-Irish Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1985 and was thus a first-hand witness to the process that culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement between the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom executed by Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November of that year.
While it is possible that something like the 1998 Agreement might have eventually occurred anyway, it is easier to argue that its 1985 predecessor was a very important foundation for or stepping stone towards it. The 1985 Agreement gave Dublin a role, consultative only but strongly so, in the governance of Northern Ireland for the first time, including an official physical presence in a joint secretariat at Maryfield, not far from Stormont.
I was lucky enough to be the junior member of the first team of Irish officials assigned to that duty. The Troubles were in full swing and Irish civil servants were not especially welcome in East Belfast, so we lived a very cloistered life, confined to our office building after travelling there from Dublin at the beginning of a week until our departure before the week-end. But we were well protected and made sure never to run out of essentials, especially ample supplies of decent wine.
Nonetheless, important though the Anglo-Irish Agreement was, the Good Friday Agreement was a much bigger beast altogether. The first involved “only” the two governments and took something over a year to negotiate. The negotiations themselves were tight with little “blow by blow” leakage to the press, so they kept a modest public profile until close to the finish. The second involved most of the local Northern Ireland political parties as well as the two governments and was much wider in scope covering political processes and institutions within Northern Ireland, cross-border relations and relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The negotiations proceeded under the tirelessly patient chairmanship of former US Senator George Mitchell and every twist and turn came under the glare of publicity as the parties jockeyed for position over the airwaves. The negotiation leading up to the Good Friday Agreement has been compared fairly to elephants mating. Things were done at a high level, accompanied by lots of noise but it took over two years (in this case, several years more) to produce a result!
In the run up to Holy Week of 1998 Senator Mitchell had set a deadline of 9 April, Holy Thursday, for arriving at a “kill or cure”, “fish or cut bait” terminus to the negotiations. In the early hours of Tuesday, 7 April, he circulated a final paper to all parties as a basis for negotiations over the following days.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair had intended to join negotiations on Holy Thursday itself to get them over the line but brought forward their arrival to Tuesday in an effort to “herd the cats” along the road towards that finishing line.
Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair’s press secretary but more generally, his right hand man on most things political, “in the room” as participant more than observer on major events since Labour won the 1997 general election 11 months earlier. His reflections on those three days that spilt over into a fourth are contained in his book The Irish Diaries (1994–2003) which are worth a scan for that section alone.
It was shortly after his arrival in Belfast on the Tuesday that Tony Blair delivered the immortal sound bite: “This is not a time for sound bites but I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.” The negotiations were taking place in Castle Buildings, a drab contemporary office building on the Stormont Estate. Campbell described the place and the Blair team’s quarters in it as:
… not a nice building and the room was too hot. The furniture was not nice either. A plain brown table, a dozen or so not very comfortable green-backed chairs, three easy chairs. We were going to be spending a lot of time in here and it was a depressing start.
Indeed, while Blair and Campbell returned to Hillsborough Castle to sleep on the first two evenings, they were cooped up in Castle Buildings for over 30 hours straight for the last two days.
The various delegations were spread across the building’s five floors, so intense shuttle diplomacy was the norm. Tentative agreement on an issue could be reached with one party delegation before being brought to others, only to find on return to the first party that the internal agreement within its delegation had unravelled in the meantime.
Overall, the atmosphere could swing from hopeful to helpless and back like the steepest rollercoaster. Issues that had seemed closed could be torn open again. Substantial proposed rewrites of parts of the draft agreement would emerge out of thin air, bits of which would be integrated “on the fly”, some rejected out of hand and some shunted off into the long grass of a commitment to resolve later.
Campbell offers insightful observations on the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach.
Every time there was a chink of a chance of advancing things, Blair wanted to take it. The Tuesday and Wednesday were up and down and, helicoptering back to Hillsborough on Wednesday night, the outlook was uncertain. Blair had wanted to work through the night but his team persuaded him, to his chagrin and regret, that it was not quite the moment for the big push.
But, a ray of hope had emerged on Wednesday evening at a meeting with the Ulster Unionist Party, internally fractious and collectively nervous of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists yelling “sellout” outside the building. The previously unfailingly negative John Taylor suddenly piped up out of nowhere: “There’s room for manoeuvre here.” It wasn’t a seismic shift but it was an indication of possibility.
From Thursday morning on, Campbell describes Blair as:
TB at his infuriating best. Once he got the bit between his teeth, and decided to go for it, he always knew best, there was no one else could put a counter-view, he was a like a man possessed.
Bertie Ahern’s 87 –year old mother, Julia, suffered a heart attack on the previous Sunday and died in the Mater hospital around 6 o’clock on Monday morning. The Taoiseach had kept vigil at her bedside with other family members through Sunday night and a post-mortem vigil alone in the hospital morgue for three hours on Monday night before travelling to Belfast on Tuesday morning. He returned to Dublin that afternoon for his mother’s removal. He went back to Belfast the same evening before coming back to Dublin in the early hours of Wednesday for the funeral itself. He then returned to Belfast to stay until the finish.
My most powerful memory of him was his return to the talks, still in black tie, putting his public duties ahead of his private grief, and doing so with a commitment, and tolerance of abuse and criticism from some of the participants, that was beyond the call of duty.
While there is a lot in the debit balance of the assessment of Bertie Ahern’s career of public service, that week weighs heavily on the credit side.
Another leader who earns Campbell’s enthusiastic praise is President Bill Clinton.
At 8 p.m. on Holy Thursday evening, it was still uncertain whether the agreement would clear the runway or crash into the airport fencing. In case it went the wrong way, Campbell prepared two possible press releases, one from Blair, one from Mitchell, saying how far they had come and how they would come back to it soon. Meantime, everybody kept going.
Already engaged, briefed and supportive, Clinton placed himself on standby at midnight to apply the muscle of his office over the telephone to chivvy the local political parties along. From 3 a.m. local time (10 p.m. Washington time) until early Friday morning he was rarely off the phone. His grasp of the issues was always immediate and total, his sense of how to engage with whoever he was asked to call exactly right. In a break between calls, at 4.30 a.m., Clinton commented ruefully over the speaker phone to Blair:
Hell, I’d rather be on holiday with Kenneth Starr than hanging out with these guys!”
Ken Starr was the court-appointed investigator into a long queue of alleged misdemeanours by the Clintons before as well as during their time in the White House.
By dawn on Good Friday morning, it seemed finally to be coming together. Campbell again:
If you had to pin me down and ask me to explain how it suddenly came together, I couldn’t but by 8.15 I was in the press tent briefing that basically we had a done deal, that it was huge, historic, ginormous, all that stuff. I felt really quite emotional and had to hold myself together. I could see in some of the NI hacks too a real deep emotion and a desire for this to be true. Even some of the real cynics from London…
Up-to-the-minute awareness of the perception of things within the media “pack” was vital to keeping things from going off the rails.
It was terrifying at times the extent to which the main parties, particularly the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, would allow their mood and indeed their tactics to be driven by the last news bulletin or the last headline.
Two generalisations are broadly true of any media scrum around events like this. First, they veer towards an internal consensus. Second, the consensus is heavily influenced by the latest briefing they receive. To paraphrase Field Marshall Haig, they are like the feather pillow, bearing the mark of the last person who has sat on them.
Campbell tried to dampen these mood swings by giving counter briefings to the general media audience as soon as possible after the spun-woven updates from the political party spokespersons and by feeding more detailed briefings on the side to two journalists widely trusted by both himself and their own colleagues. Thus he played a stabiliser role, offering green or non-green slant depending on the mood of each side in the negotiations.
Late on Friday afternoon, the deal was signed.
The feeling on that plane as we flew out from Belfast was probably the high point of my time with TB
That sentiment resonates with me. Though never at the heart of anything remotely as big as this, I was closely involved in many deals over the years, often finally settled in faraway places after lengthy and uncertain gestation. The moments of handshake and signature were always great, but they took second place behind the feeling of relief and relaxation that took over once I slumped into the seat of the flight for home. I observed the rule of never taking a drink on the way out to do business, but there was no need to deny oneself on the way home.
So, what were the ingredients that brought it all together? In Campbell’s view:
- Absolute and determined focus by those in direct charge.
- The power of deadlines and sleep deprivation.
- Keeping everybody together in the one place (the awfulness of Castle Buildings helped).
- Constant media management.
- Luck, hard work, never giving up and an extraordinary collection of people of whom Clinton was the most crucial.
Any American president is always likely to carry a certain weight and authority… but his passion for the cause, understanding of the detail and being up for doing whatever it took…
The weather during that week was a mix of frost, rain, sleet and even snow in most parts of the island, although tempered by intervals of bright sunshine, more March weather than April. The below-average temperature was exacerbated by a biting wind. I remember that because I took vindictive pleasure in the knowledge that the protesters outside Stormont Castle were suffering as I thought they deserved to do.
In a joint press conference afterwards with the Taoiseach, Tony Blair expressed the wish:
I said when I arrived here that I felt the hand of history upon us. Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.
That was prescient insofar as the Agreement did not quite mark the new beginning and definitive break with the past for which many hoped. But it did set in motion a process that has made that burden of history progressively lighter, albeit over too long a time. It is still the framework within which politics is conducted within Ireland and between Ireland and its neighbour, even if Brexit has made that framework creak and groan recently.
And it is routinely “politics” that is being conducted now. The Good Friday Agreement effectively expelled to the outer margins the actuality or threat of violence as a political bargaining chip. That alone was massive — even if that threat has not altogether gone away.
Easter is a moveable feast. In 1998, Easter Sunday was 12 April. In 1999, it came forward to 4 April. That year I was at home again, but not between jobs. At the ripe old age of 41, I was waiting the birth of our first and only child. I can’t remember if his arrival missed any deadlines, but arrive he did on 15 April. Now, that was a real break between one era and its successor.