By Louise Doyle
ON April 10, 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Pat Doherty as then Vice-President of Sinn Féin said his party’s objective was an end to partition. Twenty-five years later, he says that still stands.
The Good Friday Agreement led to the establishment of a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the creation of many new institutions including the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. It was approved by referendums in the south and north of Ireland on May 22, 1998.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Donegal News reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Agreement, the retired Sinn Féin politician who was the abstentionist Member of Parliament for West Tyrone from 2001 to 2017, weighs up what the historic peace deal has meant for this county, the island of Ireland, and what he considers were its successes and shortcomings.
“There was a huge lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. There were meetings between the SDLP and Sinn Féin, some of them happened in Letterkenny, around the right of a nation to determine its future without outside interference and we agreed on that, but we didn’t agree on what you had to do to achieve that. When those discussions ended with no agreement, Gerry Adams and John Hume, whom I always found to be very pleasant, continued to meet.
“The year before the deal, myself, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Siobhan O’Hanlon met the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and other officials. At the start of that meeting, Gerry presented Tony Blair with a Celtic cross with pressed Irish turf and said, ‘this is the last bit of Irish soil I want you to own’. Tony Blair replied: ‘Gerry, I have heard you have the knack of saying the hard thing softly.’
“Striking a deal didn’t happen overnight. Negotiations were ongoing for quite some time. Tony Blair said he would treat everyone on an equal basis. The DUP walked out when they heard we were being admitted. The UUP were very nervous. There was a huge delegation from the Irish government including Bertie Ahern and his advisor. Micheál Martin was there and other Cabinet ministers. The Northern Ireland Office was there. There were lots of little gatherings. It wasn’t all plenary.”
Mr Doherty said he was witness to much turmoil on the corridors of Castle Buildings as striking a deal inched further forward.
“My role during the agreement was briefing the media and briefing my party on what stage we were at and any potential difficulties. One of the most significant meetings I had was with an NIO official on the releasing of prisoners. Of course he didn’t want to hear tell of the release of prisoners. He asked me when I thought the prisoners should be released and I said ‘tomorrow morning’, so that set the tone.
“Castle Buildings was full of swing doors. I saw arguments, and that was an indication of the tensions within Unionism. On the morning of Good Friday we were given the document. We had been up all night. Some people were sleeping on chairs, some on the floor.
“In the party we had this saying, ‘go walk the corridors’. Myself and Gerry Kelly headed out and walked the corridors. It was getting near 3pm. George Mitchell’s door was ajar and he said he had just heard that David Trimble was going to vote. We went into Plenary session where all the parties had to vote yes or no to the agreement. Trimble, with a pencil in his hand, broke it and said ‘yes’.”
Mr Doherty said the agreement was carried with huge euphoria and much expectation, but red lines emerged on the issues of weapons and prisoners.
“We wanted the prisoners out much quicker than the two years but Unionists were very nervous about all that. We were visiting the prisoners. Their feeling was that if there was a way to resolve armed conflict, put political process in place and be treated equally, then that was the way to go.”
He praised the influence of former President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
“Bill Clinton became personally engaged. He was a calm, cool head. For him to be so interested was huge. I am always astonished by how engaged Irish Americans are in our politics and how widespread the Diaspora is.”
Closer to home, Mr Doherty said the Good Friday Agreement brought demilitarisation and the opening up of the border.
“All checkpoints came down. There was a nervousness, and that was understandable. The development freed people up from feeling like that.”
Asked if he believed the Good Friday Agreement has lived up to its aspirations, Mr Doherty said that while the agreement has “brought peace by and large”, not everything was delivered.
“It hasn’t lived up to everything, but we never expected it to be perfect. There are still dissident republicans who have no strategy, no implementation. They have no sense. You have loyalists who think their Britishness is being chipped away all the time, but by and large it is light years in terms of peace from where we were.
“The biggest disappointment to me was the lack of economic inward investment into the six counties and into the north west. It is a disgrace that when you look at a map of Tyrone, Donegal and Fermanagh that there is no rail service.The lack of economic investment has been disappointing because people deserve a better standard of living. This is a continuation of the internal turmoil within Unionism, which is not good for them and it is certainly not good for the Irish people. It will work its way out. It will take time and patience.”
Mr Doherty said a united Ireland will happen.
“It is inevitable. It won’t happen on its own. Brexit woke people up. The six counties voted to stay. It was the biggest breach of consent ever since the Good Friday Agreement.”
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