Peace at last for Ulster

Blair, Ahern and Mitchell seal historic agreement 17 hours after passing of talks deadline
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE people of Northern Ireland were promised peace yesterday as an historic agreement offered a way out of 30 years of violent conflict.

After a night and day of drama, the exhausted politicians hammered out last minute differences and produced a potentially ground-breaking document. Tony Blair, the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the talks chairman George Mitchell sealed the deal at 5pm yesterday, 17 hours after the original deadline for an agreement.

A great many loose ends remain and many political obstacles lie ahead, but the sense that a new beginning had been made was palpable both at the talks themselves and on the streets of Belfast. A woman who walked through the city centre said: "I saw people with tears in their eyes. I shed a few myself."

They were tears of relief rather than of victory, for the agreement produced yesterday was composed of scores of compromises stitched together in a 69-page document combining points made by the two governments and the eight parties at the table.

Minutes after the deal was agreed, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, appeared on the steps of Stormont Castle to declare victory.

"I believe today courage has triumphed. I said when I arrived here on Wednesday night that I felt the hand of history upon us. Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders," he said.

"It will take more of the courage we have shown, but it needn't mean more of the pain."

He said all that the people of Northern Ireland wanted was to live without fear but the agreement was only the beginning.

"Today we have just a sense of the prize that is before us. The work to win that prize goes on. We cannot, we must not let it slip."

Mr Blair said that the agreement enshrined fairness and equality for the population of Northern Ireland. But he said: "This will not work unless we extend a hand of friendship to those who were our foes."

Echoing these sentiments, Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, said the agreement was about the promise of a brighter future. "Today we hope a line can be drawn under a bloody past."

It would mean the radical transformation of all the key relationships in the island and a process of continuing change on the ground, but he said: "Equality, co-operation and partnership threaten nobody."

"If the focus remains in the past, the past will become the future and that is something no one desires ... Today's agreement is a victory for peace and democratic politics. We must seize the initiative."

However, Mr Ahern added that his ultimate political aspiration remained the coming together of all the people of Ireland "achieved peacefully and with consent".

David Trimble, of the Ulster Unionist Party, said they had been concerned that the new assembly would have allowed parties related to the paramilitaries to get close to the heart of the administration. But, he said, they had been reassured.

Mr Mitchell praised Mr Blair and Mr Ahern for their efforts. At a final session, he spoke of the "remarkable experience" of his involvement in the peace process.

He said: "I have that bitter-sweet feeling that comes in life. I am dying to leave but I hate to go.

"I have been all over the world and I have never been any place where there are better people."

The agreement is still not final since two of the most important elements involved, the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, must sell it to grassroots which will include many with doubts about the new course of give and take which it sketches out.

But it represents a triumph for almost all involved, in particular the local representatives who made a successful transition from the politics of demand to the politics of negotiation. Their next task will take them into the politics of marketing, and eventually of co-operation.

The official talks deadline had been set as midnight on Thursday but with no agreement in sight at that point bargaining went on through the night. It was not until late afternoon that an agreed text was completed.

Some final hours of delay were caused when the Ulster Unionists indicated concerns on a number of points. Reports circulated that senior party members were split on the advisability of signing up for the deal, with speculation that hard-liners were fighting a rearguard action.

The deal will set up an intricate structure based around a new Belfast assembly linked to a new north-south institution, together with new connections to the devolved assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

The document also envisagesmoves towards the release of paramilitary prisoners, including the increasing of remission from the present one- half to two-thirds.