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SDLP leader John Hume arrives for the final day of the peace talks in Castle Buildings. Talk were due to finish by the midight deadline but continued on to Friday afternoon.
gfa 25

Brian Rowan The magic of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was how a firm 'no' became 'yes'

The former BBC correspondent says the peace process needs the British and Irish Governments again, it needs strong leadership.

THERE IS A lot of learning in 25 years; the meaning of compromise, and, with that, the understanding that political agreement is not shaped by one set of demands.

Then, for those who were part of the talks, I suppose there is the soul-searching – the sleepless nights thinking and rethinking decisions, and the doubts that play into and trouble the mind.

In the poisoned politics of our place, some are still learning, and some will never learn.

No side got all it wanted from that tortuous negotiation at Castle Buildings in Belfast in 1998 – the talking that gave us the Good Friday Agreement.

Not David Trimble. Not Gerry Adams. Not John Hume. Not the Governments – British and Irish. Not the loyalists. Not the others.

northern-ireland-peace-process-talks 10/4/1998. Job Well Done. Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement. L TO R. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness slipped away by themselves at lunchtime amid all the hullabaloo, after putting their personal final approval to the Good Friday (Belfast Agreement) peace agreement in Stormont Castle. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

There is always something missing in agreements. It is how they come to be made.

But each got something – being part of that moment that created a new beginning; what we might describe as a long road away from the ‘wars’ of this place.

We have also learned that peace is not surrender.

In 2023, there is much that still needs to be done.

Pantomime, pathetic, pedestrian plays 

Twenty-five years after Good Friday there is yet another crisis in northern politics.

Those who walked away in ’98, are still walking away; this time from the Windsor Framework; a renegotiated and complex post-Brexit trading arrangement between GB and Northern Ireland, that unionists argue damages the Union.


And those who are shouting loudest now shouted loudest for Brexit.

We watched as they ran down its blind alleys.

The learning, if only they would listen to someone other than themselves, is that politics is not just about what you want, but what comes with it.

We know those who have overplayed their hand. They do it time and time again.

So, in the waiting, we once again watch the pathetic, pantomime, pedestrian plays of Stormont.

good-fridaybelfastpeace-agreement 10/4/1998. Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement. Exausted members of the media, including journalist Peter Taylor (1st right) , try to get some sleep in the freezing press centre, as the deadlocked talks pass their midnight deadline. Later around lunch hour that day, agreement was reached in what became became known as the Good Friday or the Belfast Peace Agreement. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

At a recent event in west Belfast, a former Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast, Tom Hartley, spoke of my pessimism, and I responded by saying I was more pissed off; for this reason, that politicians – the leaders we had in ’98 – did the hard work, and, today, there are still those who stumble over the small bits – tripping themselves up; falling over their own feet, not knowing where they are going or why.

A new agreement?

In this important anniversary year for the Good Friday Agreement, there is a serious question that almost everyone is avoiding: Is Stormont worth saving?

If it is, then it needs to prove that soon; save itself from the sham and the shame of that place.

Perhaps we need a new agreement; one that looks further than the vision of ’98.

Still waiting for the past in the present

We are still telling the war stories, the ghost stories; talking about the ugly truths.

None of that has been left behind.

The agreement was silent – there was no process, no way to address all those things we still talk about – truth, healing, reconciliation, sharing.

It avoided the Past, but it is always with us.

file-photo-dated-100498-of-then-prime-minister-tony-blair-left-and-then-taoiseach-bertie-ahern-signing-the-good-friday-peace-agreement-which-stated-that-the-people-of-northern-ireland-will-decide File photo dated 10/04/98 of then prime minister Tony Blair (left) and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday peace agreement. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

And, so, we are still trying to build new on that old swamp – those ‘war’ years that can still pull us down.

I believe strongly that the next 25 years are more important than the last 25 years – more challenging, potentially more difficult. Maybe dangerous.

Walls and borders

In too many places, you can still walk along those high walls that stand between communities.

They are the internal borders in our peace – big structures that are a constant reminder of division. The peace lines can still become front lines.

None of this will change unless politics changes. Until minds open and change.

Stormont has failed the Past and failed the Peace – failed the Agreement.

It is not good enough. And we should not be afraid to say so.

So, this anniversary year should be a moment to reflect, not just on what was achieved in ’98, but what still needs to be done.

’25 Pieces’

I was a non-believer in 1998; not able to see an agreement.

It is a story I am telling in a travelling exhibition – ’25 Pieces’; in scribbled notes and letters and statements drawn from my extensive archive.

WhatsApp Image 2023-04-06 at 08.00.25 Brian Rowan in conversation with former BBC colleague Mervyn Jess at the opening '25 Pieces' event last month. MT Hurson MT Hurson

On an old jotter page, the forgotten dead of 1998 – the names few of us remember.

The big battles that followed the agreement – about prisoners, policing and guns.

A story well beyond Good Friday of codewords, the words that continued to be used by paramilitary organisations to authenticate their communications with the media.

The intelligence wars that spoke of little or no trust.

The statements and briefings on the so-called ‘disappeared’ – those ‘executed’ and secretly buried by the IRA; the remains of some still not found.

Peace is not a moment

Peace is a process – a long road, not knowing the bends. It is why, at times, it crashes.

But we know this. That words change when people talk.

That is the story of 1998 and of the peace process – How ‘no’ became ‘yes’.

Since then, there are those who have taken the ‘peace’ for granted – forgotten the horrors of the conflict period and who still play with the Past.

Those who throw bricks in the political glasshouses.

This process, which we call peace, needs saving, needs energy, needs momentum – needs the British and Irish Governments again. Needs international help. Needs leaders.

What next?

David Trimble believed he had a good deal in 1998 – on political and constitutional matters – a good deal for Northern Ireland and for the Union.

Sinn Féin had to find its way to Stormont; take a road we thought it had no intention of travelling.

A road to a place and into a political arrangement that is not fit for purpose.

The brokenness of our politics and the Brexit fallout are what have made the ‘New Ireland’ conversation louder.

That’s the damage to the Union. Self damage – political harm. No strategy. Blind politics.

And, so, at some point, there will be a border poll.

We don’t know when.

But we do know this. That the Good Friday Agreement was not a full stop.

That question of Union or Unity is always there in our conversation.

Politics, even when it is stuck, is always moving.

Brian Rowan is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast and an author on the peace process. His latest book Living with Ghosts was recently published by Merrion Press.

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