Presidential pleas, marathon talks and crisis after crisis: How Good Friday Agreement was signed against the odds

It may have been Blair who felt the hand of history on his shoulder. But the deal for peace in Northern Ireland could not have happened without politicians of all shades – and old enemies – straining every sinew to end decades of violence, writes Andrew Grice

Saturday 08 April 2023 17:21 BST
‘The Good Friday Agreement would not have happened without Tony Blair leading from the front’
‘The Good Friday Agreement would not have happened without Tony Blair leading from the front’ (PA)

It was Tony Blair’s finest hour. On Good Friday in 1998, he secured a historic agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of sectarian violence.

Of course, the former prime minister did not do it alone. The Good Friday Agreement, which became a model studied by peacemakers around the world, required huge commitment and sacrifices by many others – including Unionist and Republican politicians in Northern Ireland; Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA and the Irish government. The community played an important part, whether churches and clerics in a country divided between Protestants and Catholics or groups such as the Peace Women.

An unexpected deal was made possible by a combination of circumstances and people. The IRA and the British Army had arrived at the same point, acknowledging a stalemate: while they could both prolong a bloody conflict which had claimed more than 3,500 lives, neither could win militarily.

But the deal would not have happened without Blair leading from the front and becoming the first incoming prime minister since Gladstone to make Northern Ireland a top priority. Devoting so much time and energy was perhaps surprising for a leader whose other main achievement was winning three elections. There were no votes for him in the province, while failure would mean a damaging start to his premiership.

“It was a very personal triumph,” one of Blair’s cabinet allies recalls today. “Tony conceived it, was the driving force, and finally negotiated a deal which transformed Northern Ireland and ended the armed conflict. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

Blair relished the challenge. Mo Mowlam, his Northern Ireland secretary, who played a big role in getting Sinn Fein on board but in doing so lost the Unionists’ confidence, said Blair had a “Jesus complex”. But one former Blair aide told me his optimism and confidence that could solve intractable problems “was a weakness on Iraq but a strength on Northern Ireland”.

Blair allies admit his Tory predecessor John Major deserves more credit than history has given him. In 1993, the Provisional IRA sent him a startling message: “The conflict is over but we need your advice to bring it to a close. We wish to have an unannounced ceasefire in order to hold a dialogue leading to peace.”

Good Friday Agreement: Moment historic peace treaty signed

Major tried to make a breakthrough but failed amid continuing IRA attacks on the mainland. “He paved the way for Tony,” another former Blair aide recalled. “He changed the paradigm from defeating the IRA militarily. He recognised a new approach was necessary.”

In opposition, Blair adopted a bipartisan approach, ditching Labour’s traditional support for a united Ireland. He did not criticise Major’s mistakes but was keen to learn from them; Major failed to get Sinn Fein into all-party talks quickly after an IRA ceasefire in 1994 and raised the decommissioning of IRA weapons as a pre-condition for Sinn Fein’s involvement.

How did Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern – with whom he had bonded while they were both in opposition – succeed where so many others had failed? Their mutual trust was a key ingredient. They were from a new generation without the historical baggage from tensions dating back to the 16th century that weighed so heavily on their predecessors. A British official working in the province at the time recalled: “Blair was seen by local people as different, a breath of fresh air. He was young, energetic and offered hope. For the first time, ‘the Brits’ did not look like a colonial ruling class from a bygone era.”

Mo Mowlam (left) with Gordon Brown in 1998. She was secretary of state for Northern Ireland during the Good Friday Agreement talks
Mo Mowlam (left) with Gordon Brown in 1998. She was secretary of state for Northern Ireland during the Good Friday Agreement talks (Reuters)

Blair raised eyebrows by travelling to Northern Ireland for his first speech outside London after his 1997 landslide. His priority was to reassure the Unionist parties, saying “my agenda is not a united Ireland” and that no one in the hall was likely to see one in their lifetime. After that, he never paused, so he would maintain the momentum towards a deal.

Success, though, was never guaranteed – right up to the last minute. It required what Blair’s chief of staff and tireless negotiator Jonathan Powell called “constructive ambiguity,” notably on IRA decommissioning. Both Sinn Fein and Unionists needed to think any agreement endorsed their position. If Sinn Fein had been forced to accept a deadline, there would have been no deal. If Blair had told the Unionists he had given up hope on decommissioning, they would have walked out of the talks; he battled constantly to keep them in.

Blair argued that decommissioning was not the biggest question because the IRA could give up its weapons and then acquire more at a later date. He zoned in on the issue of “consent”, proposing the status of Northern Ireland could not be changed without the support of its people, a difficult concession for Republicans.

The outline of the eventual deal was hardly new. To some participants, it echoed the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, which aimed to set up a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland and a cross-border council of Ireland – which suspicious Unionists rejected as an embryo government of the island.

Blair picked up the three-stranded agreement discussed under Major: a Northern Ireland executive and assembly; north-south cooperation on the island and east-west cooperation between the British and Irish governments and across both islands. There was also decommissioning, prisoners, policing, security and human rights. Although a deadline of May 1998 was set, the talks again seemed to be going nowhere fast.

A loyalist mural is seen on a wall in west Belfast, Northern Ireland earlier this month
A loyalist mural is seen on a wall in west Belfast, Northern Ireland earlier this month (AP)

There was little optimism in the air when Blair arrived in Belfast on the Tuesday before Good Friday, rejecting the advice of officials who advised him not to bother. Ahern wasn’t sure either and George Mitchell, the former US senator who chaired the all-party talks, warned Blair there was no prospect of a deal. One Unionist gave the meeting a 5 per cent chance of success. Powell was instinctively more optimistic but not sure why.

On arriving, an unprepared Blair produced one of his most famous soundbites – while trying not to. He told the waiting media: “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 in respect of this, I really do.” His aides Alastair Campbell and Powell collapsed into fits of laughter. “It just popped into my head,” he told them afterwards.

The dreary, claustrophobic Castle Buildings at Stormont, with its maze of corridors, were hardly the ideal setting for what turned into a marathon negotiation. “It stank of sweat and stale food,” Powell said. With journalists camped outside, the only place participants could grab fresh air was in a walled courtyard; they walked round and round, thinking it was like a prison. Blair “was fortified by bananas and ghastly sandwiches,” one adviser remembers. After Tuesday night, few of those involved had much sleep for the following two nights. At one point, Blair discovered the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis asleep in his bed at Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland secretary’s residence. John Holmes, Blair’s private secretary for foreign affairs, fell asleep on an office table in his suit.

The first crisis during a three-day rollercoaster ride was over the north-south relationship. The Ulster Unionists, led by David Trimble, were under pressure from the rival, hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Ian Paisley, who boycotted the talks but turned up to address the media and denounce Trimble as a traitor. Trimble was incensed about the draft and demanded concessions from Dublin and Ahern shortened a lengthy list on north-south cooperation.

Tony Blair, the US senator George Mitchell, and Bertie Ahern after the signing of the Agreement
Tony Blair, the US senator George Mitchell, and Bertie Ahern after the signing of the Agreement (AP)

At one point, Blair lost his cool with the Irish over the north-south bodies, but an eventual breakthrough paved the way for a deal on devolved government. Then Sinn Fein became the barrier to a deal. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and Martin McGuinness, who had both joined the Provisional IRA as young men, did a “good cop, bad cop” routine: Adams never said he would reject the agreement, but McGuinness said he could not recommend it. Blair acknowledged they had to bring hardliners in their movement on board; history showed that failing to do so could cost them their lives.

Bill Clinton, the US president, weighed in to try to keep a deal alive: on the Thursday, he stayed up all night and phoned Adams three times. Compromises were found on policing and the Irish language. But then the controversial issue of releasing terrorist prisoners became a late stumbling block. Blair gave Adams a private assurance he would bring forward their release from two years to one – a chip that was never cashed in – and agreed to meet Adams after Easter to prove he was in the process for the long haul.

When a deal looked possible, in the early hours of Good Friday the talks hit fresh trouble over north-south arrangements. An exhausted Blair summoned Ahern and Trimble and their delegations. “The Irish dig their heels in, and Trimble came across as appallingly rude to Bertie [Ahern], who came within an ace of hitting him,” Powell wrote in his fascinating book about the agreement, Great Hatred, Little Room. Blair pleaded successfully with Trimble but there was yet another hurdle when the draft agreement was being finalised on Good Friday morning. Blair bowed to a Unionist demand to close a civil service building that housed an Anglo-Irish secretariat.

Campbell, Blair’s director of communications, told the waiting media a deal was done, but it wasn’t. In fact, all hell broke loose when the parties got a revised text at midday. Trimble had not prepared the ground with his delegation; he had judged (wrongly) that Sinn Fein would not live with the principle of consent. Blair was in despair, begging the Unionists to “look at the big picture”. He was not prepared to fail, and so sent Trimble a side letter making clear Sinn Fein would be excluded from the executive if there was no decommissioning. It worked – just.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, with Gerry Adams behind him, in 1994
Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, with Gerry Adams behind him, in 1994 (AP)

The deal finally done, Blair and Ahern addressed the media. Sticking to his soundbite, Blair said: “Today I hope that the burden of history can at long last start to be lifted from our shoulders.”

Blair could bask in his unexpected triumph. But it turned out to be a beginning, not an end. As one former cabinet minister told me: “People forget it today, but the Good Friday Agreement was stillborn.” Little did Blair know that it would take another nine years of painstaking negotiations to get the executive and assembly up and running. Trimble and John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) won the Nobel peace prize. But Trimble paid a heavy price for his courage. He lost his Commons seat, resigned as the Ulster Unionists’ leader and his party was eclipsed by the DUP. One unintended consequence – an irony given Blair’s obsession with the centre ground – was that extreme parties on both sides of the divide prospered while moderates lost support as politics in the province polarised. The SDLP was overtaken by Sinn Fein.

Remarkably, it was the DUP’s Paisley who became Northern Ireland’s first minister, with McGuinness his deputy, a most unlikely combination who came to like each other and were dubbed “the chuckle brothers”. On the day they were sworn in in May 2007, Blair said it was time for the province to “escape the chains of history”. Two days later, he announced his resignation. Like Major, Blair probably deserves more credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland than he got, but the lives he undoubtedly saved there were eclipsed by those lost in Iraq.

The story is far from over today. The DUP brought the assembly and executive to a halt in February last year in protest at the Northern Ireland protocol on post-Brexit trading arrangements. A previous hiatus lasted three years. This has prompted calls for the Good Friday Agreement to be reformed to prevent the DUP and Sinn Fein from possessing such a veto and to recognise growing support for the non-sectarian Alliance Party. Change will probably come one day but will not be easy; it would require cross-community support.

Despite such flaws, the Good Friday Agreement has stood the test of time, a reminder of the power of politics to do good when politicians of all shades – and old enemies – strain every sinew.

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