It was not the time for soundbites, but Tony Blair delivered one in any case.
As he flew into Belfast on 7 April 1998, the then Labour prime minister told reporters: “A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.”
Blair was about to enter Hillsborough Castle to meet with his Irish counterpart Bernie Ahern, and leaders of both national and loyalist political parties. Ahead of him were three of his toughest days during his decade-long residence in No.10 Downing Street.
By 10 April, Blair and Ahern sat side by side to sign the Good Friday Agreement. However, at points during the talks the British prime minister felt the division between Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and his nationalist counterpart in the Social Democratic and Labour Party John Hume was growing.
Adding to the tensions were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the leaders of the political wing of the IRA Sinn Féin, whose participation led to the absence of loyalist firebrand Dr Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
It was only after an all-night session, chaired by President Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party ally Senator George Mitchell, that the light at the end of this long diplomatic tunnel could be glimpsed.
Looking back on the talks that led to what is also known as the Belfast Agreement, Blair told i: “The talks were incredibly tense and difficult with constant swings of mood between hope and despair.
“Frequently it looked like all was lost only for it to be rescued. I probably had six to eight hours sleep over the whole three days or more.”
Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP for North Antrim, has a somewhat different memory of the talks. His father, the political powerhouse Dr Paisley, believed Adams and McGuinness should not have been included until the IRA had lay down its arms.
“The DUP had an agreement with David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist that they would not negotiate with Sinn Féin until they had given up their guns,” Mr Paisley tells i.
“David Trimble reneged on that agreement when Sinn Féin entered the talks process, but we believed that if that agreement had been kept the guns would have been given up sooner rather than later.
“Remember, Sinn Féin had been fully infiltrated by MI5 at the time, and even Gerry Adams’ personal driver was an MI5 agent.
“They were losing the war and we believed that we could have squeezed them to get them to give up the guns a lot sooner.”
Despite the opposition of the DUP, Blair and his fellow politicians did finally achieve a peace that has, largely, held in the 25 years since. But he does not forget what that peace means, and the three decades of horror that preceded it.
Even Dr Paisley’s view towards Sinn Féin softened once the IRA had laid down its arms, and he eventually said yes to sharing power with his Irish republican enemies.
After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, Dr Paisley, who died aged 88 in 2014, became Northern Ireland’s First Minister, with Sinn Féin’s McGuinness as his deputy in a partnership that was unthinkable even as the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Indeed, they appeared to enjoy their time together, becoming known as the “Chuckle brothers”.
While Mr Paisley Jr does not believe McGuinness and his father were the best of friends he does remember “their mutual respect for each other”.
“People ask me what was the reason your father got on so well with the former terrorist Martin McGuinness,” he says. “The answer is in the word ‘former’.
“They certainly did have a good respectful relationship, and my father recognised that unless they worked together the place would fall apart.”
Three decades of bloodshed
Every day of every year marks the anniversary of someone’s death as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Between 1969 and 1998 a total 3,720 people lost their lives, while more than 47,500 were injured. There were 36,923 shootings and 16,209 bombings. The relative peace of today can lead to memories fading of how devastating it was.
Whether you prefer to call this three-decade period the Troubles, a civil war, a terrorist-led anti-British campaign, or an act of British imperialism, the Good Friday Agreement did bring about a peace after the bloodshed perpetrated and suffered by both sides.
Thirty years of attacks in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland from nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries ended, and cities like Belfast and Derry have prospered ever since.
While the laying down of arms by the likes of the Provisional IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army and their loyalist counterparts including the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association has led to a generation of people in Northern Ireland growing up without experiencing the violence their parents and grandparents remember all too well. This has remained a delicate peace.
The calm has been broken in the years since by attacks from both dissident republican and loyalist groups, and the inquiries and campaigns over the actions of British, or state, forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary continue to this day.
Keeping the peace
Even though he had felt “the hand of history”, Sir Tony, who admits “Northern Ireland always did strange things to me”, knew then that the Good Friday Agreement would have to be adapted to the circumstances and politics that came along in the years ahead.
Indeed, since it was signed, there have been four subsequent agreements, all designed to keep the peace.
“The Good Friday Agreement should always be up for review as circumstances and opinions change in Northern Ireland,” Sir Tony tells i.
“But we should always remember that despite everything the agreement has held and, therefore, we should recognise that any change will only work if it has broad consent from all parts of the community.”
Mr Ahern backs the ex-PM’s view of a constantly evolving Good Friday Agreement.
The former taoiseach says there is a “logic and a rationale for taking a look at the institutions and some of the mechanisms around it at this 25-year juncture”.
Reflecting on the past quarter of a century Mr Ahern added that the peace deal, had worked in all but one respect.
“It is the politicians who have let us down,” he says, and, on this point at least, Paisley agrees.
“The way my father commanded a crowd, his use of the English language, the loudness of his voice, and the pitch he was able to speak at was incredible,” says Paisley.
“He was just inspiring, hypnotising to watch. These people come alone but once in a generation and we were lucky to have his presence.
“It’s not a slight on the politicians we have now, but we don’t have any big beasts like my father and the other we had back then.”
In the past decade Stormont has been out of action for more than four years, with Sinn Féin walking out for three years and the DUP boycotting the assembly for the past 14 months.
“There is a need for a review to look at how we can stop this issue [repeated collapses of power sharing] from rising again,” he says.
However, Paisley adds that those who want to constantly tinker with the agreement should be “careful what they wish for”.
“People will want change one way, and then we will want change the other way,” adds Paisley. “Then we’re into agreeing another difficult political settlement.”
While the peace may have, largely, held in the 25 years since the agreement was signed, UK security services recently raised the threat level in Northern Ireland from substantial to severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.
“The current threat level is not surprising given all the focus on the 25 years celebration because there remain irreconcilable elements in Northern Ireland,” adds Blair. “But the vast majority of people there continue to support peace.
“However, we need vigilance at all times.”
Impact of three decades of conflict
Between 1969 and 1998 tens of thousands of lives were affected by the Troubles. These are the stark numbers.
- 3,720 people killed, 47,541 people injured , 36,923 shootings and 16,209 bombings
- 1,533 of the deaths as a result of the conflict were under the age of 25
- 257 of those killed were under the age of 18
- The largest age group (25% or 898 people) killed were those between the ages of 18 and 23
- As of 1998, the largest group (54%) of the deaths as a result of the conflict were civilians
- As of 1998, the largest group (68%) of those injured were civilians
As for what the future holds for Northern Ireland, Sir Tony believes getting the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont back in business is key to both maintaining the peace and ensuring those who dream of a united Ireland do not have the wishes granted.
“It all depends on how Northern Ireland is governed over the next 25 years,” he says. “If the institutions get back up and running and politicians put the interests of the people first, then I believe the future will be secure within the UK. I certainly hope so.”
For Paisley, he is now glad the Good Friday Agreement was signed for one overriding reason.
“I welcome the fact that they stopped killing us, but I shouldn’t have had to give up any of my democratic rights for them,” he says.
Northern Ireland conflict timeline
- 14 August 1969: British Army first deployed onto streets of Northern Ireland
- 9 August 1971: Internment introduced and violent protests begin
- 1972: Bloodiest year of the conflict
- 30 January 1972 – Bloody Sunday: 13 civil rights protesters shot dead by British Army
- March 1972: Northern Ireland Government suspended and Direct Rule imposed
- 21 July 1972: Bloody Friday, IRA bombs kill nine people and injures 130 in Belfast
- From 1974: IRA steps up bombing campaign on the British mainland
- 29 November 1974: Prevention of Terrorism Act
- 1980: Seven Republican prisoners launch hunger strike in Maze Prison
- 1981: Death of Bobby Sands (first IRA hunger striker to die) results in a huge surge in support for Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing
- 12 October 1984: IRA Brighton bombing of the Grand Hotel kills five people and seriously injures 34. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly avoids being killed.
- 15 November 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement signed, giving Dublin some say in Ulster affairs
- November 1987: Remembrance Day bombing Enniskillen
- 15 December 1993: Downing Street Declaration that people of Northern Ireland can determine their own future. Warrington bomb kills two young boys
- August 1994: Peace process receives a big boost when the pro-Catholic 1994 IRA ceasefire declared with Sinn Féin entering peace process
- 1996: Peace Talks stall and violence resumes with bombing in London’s Docklands
- 1997: Resumption of peace talks
- February 1997: Stephen Restorick last British soldier to be killed before the Good Friday Agreement
- 10 April 1998: Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement signed
Sinn Féin was repeatedly asked to contribute to this article but did not respond.