Twenty years ago, a group of political leaders supported by officials convened at Castle Complex, Stormont Castle, to negotiate an agreement. It was an intense and concentrated effort, the culmination of decades of work. There was no certainty of outcome and yet in the end they came to an agreement. By any measure it was an historic one.
The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is being marked in a number of ways with events, discussions and even publications. As part of this recognition, the Royal Irish Academy, inspired by Prof. Mary Daly, and working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, convened a one-day conference on 21 March whose theme was “The Road to the Good Friday Agreement.” Its focus was on the role of Irish officials who had worked on the Northern Ireland peace process. Apart from a few key officials from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Justice, they were my colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: since the eruption of violence in 1969 my Department led on Northern Ireland. When the conflict broke out, we had one official on the job. By the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 we had a strong Division at Headquarters, a group of travellers active in Northern Ireland gathering views and information, experienced officials rotated through our embassies in London and Washington and the consulate in New York, and a team manning the Maryfield Secretariat twenty-four-seven.
The panellists were officials who had by now retired; in other words most of those involved in the peace process at senior official level up to the GFA. In fact myself and one other DFAT colleague, Rory Montgomery, are the only two who were on the GFA Talks Team and still in service. There’s apparently one official left in the British system who worked closely on the peace process (it shows). The discussion was held under Chatham House rules and so I can write about it without attribution.
Most of the chief officials from the early 1980s onwards were at the RIA, in good fettle, impressive in their intellectual heft, amusing in their telling anecdotes, and sagacious about what they were up to in trying to tame history and bring about a secure peace and resilient settlement: Michael Lillis, Sean Donlon, Noel Dorr, Sean O hUigínn, Martin Mansergh, Richard Ryan, Ted Smyth, Tim Dalton, Paddy Teahon, Tim O’Connor, David Donoghue and Daithí Ó Ceallaigh. It was interesting to savour their individual approaches which spoke to their character and talents; gnarly world experience, impish Machiavellian insight into human behaviour, almost scientific parsing of factors, awareness of history, capacity to influence through charm and diplomacy, diligent officialdom and note taking, shamanistic authority and logical perspicacity. And one should note too that generations of officials in Anglo-Irish Division served their part in the peace process at all levels, from clerical to senior levels, each in their own way adding to the collective push towards peace.
The panels at the Conference were organised according to the broad chronology of the process. The failure of Sunningdale and the importance of Haughey’s 1980 tea-pot summit with Thatcher were rightly acknowledged as key milestones. There was much insight on the negotiation and operation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and some drama too concerning the Irish team (officials, clerical support, drivers, and housekeeping staff) working at the Maryfield Secretariat outside Belfast and besieged by anti-agreement unionists. These brave people had their lives threatened for working there. The role of RUC officers assigned to protect them, many of whom along with their families had to be rehoused for security reasons as a result, was also acknowledged. When I joined the Department in 1986 I was assigned to Anglo-Irish Division and recall vividly the buzz on Friday as the team at Maryfield changed for the weekend, the anxious checking on logistics to ensure safe passage north.
The outsized role of John Hume featured in the RIA discussions, notably his understanding that both the EU and US could play critical roles in bringing peace. He was “a master strategist of the first order” as one panellist put it. Hume’s achievement in the US was to recast the issue of Northern Ireland in a way that could be embraced by Irish American Congressmen hitherto steeped in a more traditional nationalist view that the solution to Northern Ireland’s problems was unity. It is impossible now to imagine a peace process without the Hume-Adams dialogue, a courageous and risky act by Hume for which he paid a heavy price.
Albert Reynolds was extolled for his laser focus on making progress over process, an insistence that he knowingly deployed aggressively, particularly in London. To make progress, the killing had to stop and that was the task he had set himself. His approach was resisted, even resented, but ultimately acknowledged by the British side as creating the breakthrough from conflict to peace.
That breakthrough took the form of the Downing Street Declaration, the seminal document of the peace process, a masterpiece of intellectual architecture that resolved the riddle of self-determination that lay at the root of partition and of the conflict. It laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement itself, brought to a deal by the unflagging determination of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair that the moment had to be seized, that this rendezvous with history would be met.
The most notable absence from the day was Dermot Gallagher, one of three key senior civil servants on the Irish side most responsible for the peace process at the official level, advising and guiding the political level of Taoisigh, Prime Ministers, Ministers, and political leaders. He sadly passed away last year. Along with a senior official from the Department of the Taoiseach, Paddy Teahon, and another from the Department of Justice, Tim Dalton, this troika of officials played the leadership role at official level. Apart from his inexhaustible energy and leadership, Dermot created the DFAT Talks Team that negotiated the various elements of the GFA text. That was why I was there, assigned to negotiate with my opposite numbers at the NIO (the famed ‘securocrats’) on policing, justice and security issues.
The outcome of that agenda was determined in my view by the thinking of the SDLP, where Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood acted as my guides and arbiters of whether the texts met the threshold for real and essential transformation in this critical area. They grasped that it was in the relationship between the citizen and the justice system that the State earns its authority. It was where Northern Ireland had lost its authority with the nationalist community. As in so many elements of the Good Friday Agreement, Mallon was a totemic figure in the negotiations, an unerring chancellor to whom we officials turned not just for guidance but for critical interventions. Indeed the SDLP as a whole was the conscience of the GFA.
The Women’s Coalition were represented at the RIA and only right too because they made a huge and largely invisible contribution to the negotiation process and outcome, ensuring that everyone moved in concert and that no one’s concerns were not addressed. As a result most everyone at Castle Complex felt an ownership of the final document. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was also recognised as a great energising force at the talks, her humour and directness used as battering rams against personal conceits and misplaced stubbornness when occasion demanded.
I was not sure I’d spend the whole day at Academy House. Despite the comforting allure of elegant classicism and bookish cosiness, it was a long programme and a long day. Yet I could not quite pull myself away. The contributions made for a day rich in insights and overviews, an entertaining ricochet through a complex palace of memory. I resist the temptation to inventory my take on those insights and contributions but here’s three things that stand out for me.
The first is that no one understands the peace process. That is to say, no one individual has all the pieces. We each did what we did at a particular time, with a particular function, in a given context, providing continuity and adding incrementally by our efforts one more piece to the overall edifice. I’d hazard even that of the august panellists perhaps two had the greatest grasp of what it was really about. The peace process was so long-term and so complex that I suspect even they learned something on the day and, knowing both of them, will continue to learn more to the day they die.
What held all our efforts together over the decades, even with our individual limitations of perspective and talent, was a deep sense of the underlying plan, the entity that we were collectively trying to create. Like ants building a colony, we took our turn knowing that the structure had to have power-sharing, had to have a north-south dimension, had to have parity of esteem, had to be rights-based, had to have a police service that in its ethos and composition reflected the society, and had to have accountability and the rule of law.
All of this had its roots in constitutional nationalism, even constitutional republicanism, brought to a potent cogency by Hume and thinkers in the SDLP who insisted that the problem was not territory or jurisdiction – so often Dublin’s default starting place – but the relationship between the people and the traditions from which they took their identity and mores.
In striving toward this end, we as officials and travellers were operating in an environment of many actors, from the security forces, intelligence services and paramilitaries (all engaged in the dark arts and their own sub-agendas not to mention sub-economies), officials, and political parties to a host of other groups like the Churches, civil society, academics, business figures, resident associations and community leaders who played a role in the peace process at its widest definition (as it should be considered and not, in other words, as “a few good men in a room”, a reductio ad absurdum I once heard from an official).
There were, too, many other factors that bulwarked the drive to peace that could not feature in a mere day’s discussion of what we as officials were doing. There was the work of ministers and officials through the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference from 1985 onwards that addressed many of the causes of conflict and whose resolution over the years lessened the agenda for the GFA. Another was the investment and efforts of the International Fund for Ireland and the Special EU Peace Building Programme addressing the social and economic effects of conflict and insisting that it be done through cross-community cooperation. All reached out across the community divide to ease tensions and build trust. Irish Government pressure to set aside Widgery and establish a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday created its own form of confidence building. There were a succession of foreign statesmen, officials, former military figures and even senior judicial figures (like Judge Cory) who were drafted in to help at critical times, most notably Senator Mitchell. Over the years a large coterie of people made their contribution at a critical time.
The second thing that I took away – not something new to me but more deeply etched by the discussion – was the massive investment by the Irish Government in outreach and diplomacy to create the conditions for the success of the negotiations and the outcome of the GFA. At its heart were Haughey, FitzGerald, Reynolds, and Ahern (those associated with breakthrough agreements but all Taoisigh played a part), accompanied by successive generations of Ministers and officials, outreaching to Prime Ministers (Thatcher, Major, and Blair) and backbenchers in Britain; to Presidents (notably Reagan, Carter and Clinton) and Congressmen in the US (the inexhaustible goodwill of Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, of course, but many others); to key interlocutors in Europe, and leaders in Northern Ireland from the political chieftains to the street heroes of peace building.
It was a relentless and painstaking effort over decades that brooked no faltering, no matter the frustrations and obstructions. There were dark days in my time in Anglo-Irish Division when shattering news arrived; the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 and the assasination of Pat Finucane in 1989 stand out in my memory as events that confounded and then confirmed the need to search for peace. I worked on a variety of cases, including Bloody Sunday, Dublin-Monaghan, Pat Finucane, Sean Brownand, and through the parades issue, came to know Rosemary Nelson well, murdered in 1999.
There was great ingenuity too used to break impasses. Recall, for example, the Forum elections and the clever list system devised to allow smaller parties involving the loyalist community and the Women’s Coalition to be participants and make their vital contribution. Think too of the eruption of the parades issue after the 1994 ceasefire and the creation of the Parades Commission to resolve it.
Father Alec Reid’s role and that whole seam of engagement with Sinn Féin and the IRA to broker the ceasefires was an effort without which the paradigm shift to peace could not have been achieved. The British Army itself would have views of their own on this dimension. Adams and McGuinness themselves undertook personal risks to advance the agenda of peace in the face of deep republican anxiety about the implications of surrendering the Armalite for the ballot box.
Ultimately it was this investment in influence in so many quarters that ensured that the people who had to do the deal that Good Friday were going to be there and do it, do it by making history.
My memory of the final two days of the 1998 negotiation is fragmentary but those fragments are clear; the texts on my remit having been agreed, trying to get some sleep in a chair as the leading politicians and officials tried to seal the deal; the rumours of trouble about decommissioning; and the fall of snow on that fateful morning that seemed ineffably meaningful.
Once the deal was done, the day was a blur of activity, relief, joy, a sense of huge accomplishment. That night we packed into the Government jet for the short flight back to Dublin. Our hearts and our heads told us that something historic was achieved, even if we knew too that implementation of the Agreement – complex, delicate, challenging, comprehensive – would take herculean energy and determination. So it would prove. The flight was barely long enough to guzzle a stiff gin and tonic before the lights of Dublin twinkled in the velvety blackness. Somewhere down there my wife and young family hadn’t seen me for a while.
If all of these efforts had one common spur it was the victims of violence and their relatives. As travellers we often dealt directly with them, tried to empathise with their pain and loss, tried to find some way to bring them solace through truth and justice, or maybe truth or justice, or maybe just listening. Most of the time we met them up North but often we would accompany them to Government buildings to meet the Taoiseach of the day who would likewise try somehow to use our influence to help them.
As part of the peace process, we tried different ways to deal with the past, never successfully in any comprehensive way but always earnestly. Sometimes we made progress but other times not; I found the Finucane case particularly recalcitrant. Poignantly for many relatives the most important thing for them is the entry concerning their lost loved ones in the magnificent Lost Lives, the inventory of the 3,636 people who died during the Troubles.
Lost Lives is a great whispering tome that should grace every desk of every politician and official who has any responsibility for maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, particularly any artful dodgers of history tempted to cut loose from facts or personal responsibility; and not as a coy prop but as volume to be consulted on occasion to remind of the price of conflict, of failure.
I said that there were three things I took away from the RIA Conference. The third is again not novel but was reinforced by the day’s journey back through history and those parts of my past that intersected with the peace process. It is that the GFA contains all that Ireland could and did bring to the process; the commitment to unity by consent, the need to respect diversity, the foundation of rights and rule of law, the North-South dimension and the East-West relationship, and the overarching imperative for contemporary concord to triumph over the complexities and antagonisms of our past.
As the medieval cartographers would have it, beyond the GFA’s map of civility and principles, there be dragons. They have been sleeping for decades now. The incremental hum of peace building as barriers have fallen and attitudes soften with time’s passing keeps them quiet. We have a long way to go on reconciliation, make no mistake about that. But stray off this map back into old forests and those dragons will stir. Today’s backdrop to the anniversary of the GFA is of course not triumph but anxiety. It was not part of the discussions at the RIA but Brexit loomed large, not quite a sword of Damocles, more perhaps a lance wielded by errant knights who in their quixotic quest to recreate an illusion of Britain’s glorius past threaten those sleeping dragons.