Belfast Good Friday Agreement – An Explainer

Conversations with key players in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement negotiations open a new series of podcasts from the peace and reconciliation charity, the Holywell Trust. Suitably, the new series is called the Holywell Trust Conversations, reflecting a more in-depth discussion of topics that are continuing to affect Northern Ireland, and especially the North West – where Holywell is located.

The conversations in this opening podcast are with three central characters in the GFA negotiations – who have very different experiences, based on their varying roles. Avila Kilmurray was a founder of the Women’s Coalition, which came into the negotiations only after the elections that preceded the GFA. Paul Bew, Lord Bew, arrived even later, on the day of the final conclusion of the agreement. By contrast, Irish government official Ray Bassett had been heavily involved for years in multi-party negotiations that culminated in the GFA.

It is worth remembering that bringing peace to NI had been a long-term project. It is easy to forget – as I had – that the initial British government statement that the UK state had no ‘strategic selfish or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ was actually made when Peter Brooke was secretary of state and Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. But Ray Bassett recalls that it was Tony Blair’s arrival as PM that was ‘like a spaceship arriving’ in transforming the atmosphere of the talks. He adds that it was only Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that really believed the negotiations would succeed.

Paul Bew reflects that his role was to be a calm voice in David Trimble’s ear, reassuring him that the cross-border bodies would be administrative and did not presage a constitutional revolution. But Paul today expresses concern on how Brexit has created new uncertainties and anxieties that are reminiscent of the fears expressed by many at the time of the GFA.

Avila Kilmurray recalls the significant role the Women’s Coalition made, and the support it received from the then secretary of state Mo Mowlam. It was the background of the members of the Women’s Coalition in community organisations that led to it being effective in demanding commitments not only to support women in society, but also to reconciliation, victims, anti-poverty measures, integrated education and for both the Civic Forum and a Bill of Rights in the final agreement. Not that all these commitments have even now been fulfilled.

The three interviewees make some similar points. There is no affection for the St Andrews Agreement, which made significant amendments to the GFA, but an expression of appreciation and affection for David Ervine and his role in providing support for David Trimble in bringing enough unionists over the line for the GFA to have cross-community support. They all applaud the calm role of George Mitchell, the perfect talks chair.

An explanation of the core elements of the GFA and the subsequent major agreements – St Andrews, Stormont House, Fresh Start and New Decade New Approach – is also included in the podcast.

The podcast is hosted on the Holywell Trust website, along with full length conversations with Avila Kilmurray, Paul Bew and Ray Bassett. All the Holywell Conversations podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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