Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Reading the Good Friday Agreement - Archives and the Public Record of the GFA


Years of debate, talks, compromise and negotiation from across broad political divides in Northern Ireland were distilled into a document that became known by many names – “The Belfast Agreement”, “The Stormont Agreement”, or more widely, “The Good Friday Agreement”. The multi-party talks included representatives of the Ulster Union Party, led by David Trimble, SDLP leader, John Hume, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, among others, who were complimented by other key stakeholders including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, and assisted by American Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell.

The tense talks which took place at Stormont Castle over days and nights of early April 1998. The deadline for the talks, as set by Senator Mitchell was actually Thursday 9 April, but the talks spilled over past the mid-night deadline into the famous date of 10 April, Good Friday, and an agreement was reached by all parties (except the DUP, whose leader Ian Paisley protested outside Stormont and objected to the agreement, having previously refused to join the talks).

As the terms of the agreement, from its various key strands which set out a roadmap for governance, power-sharing, and security on the island, as well the establishment of new cross-border bodies with roles and functions as North-South Ministerial Council, as well as new departures for Anglo-Irish relations and structures along an east-west axis through a British-Irish Council. The changes proposed had to approved by referendum in Northern Ireland and in the Republic as alterations to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution had to be made to accommodate the terms of the agreement.

Cover page of "The Agreement"
University of Galway Library Archives

A thirty-page document, a text of the Good Friday Agreement, was printed and a copy circulated to every house in Northern Ireland. Its cover featured a silhouetted family on a sun-set beach (an image which is uncredited in the document) felt curiously at odds with the tone and importance of the document and text of the agreement. More akin to a holiday brochure, the pamphlet nevertheless was at pains to focus the reader on the text inside. “This Agreement is About Your future. Please read it carefully”. Archives of such landmark political moments also reveal the complexities of how such events are documented. 

The fact that the Agreement pamphlet is without any context or information as to who produced the document, who published, designed, or printed it, or who oversaw its distribution, is significant. Does this make it a symptom of an oversight during a frenetic period following the signing of the agreement, where civil servants or others worked to get the document out into the community as fast as possible? Or was it a deliberate action to keep the Agreement document as apolitical (if such a thing were possible) as possible – not have it ascribed to one or other political party, not endorsed by one faction’s opinion from Dublin, Belfast, or London, rather to simply present the words of the agreement as they were, plain and clear, to the reader.

Viewing the archival significance form another viewpoint, the document further placed the emphasis and agency for change in the hands of the reader and of the voter. “it’s your decision” it reiterated, boldly and loudly from the front cover. It distanced the agreement from the parties and personalities who brokered it and put its impetus and ultimately its lasting effects onto the public. The resulting referendum votes took place on 18th May 1998, comfortably passing in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. The document includes the text of the “Declaration of Support” by the participants in the multi-party talks”, the details of the constitutional changes, the many minutiae of strands one, two, and three of the agreement, as well as the terms of rights and safeguards, decommissioning, security, policing, justice, prisoners, as well as validation, implementation and review.

Contents and opening page of The Agreement pamphlet. 
University of Galway Library Archives.

As an ephemeral piece of archival memory of the Good Friday Agreement, the document is a potent symbol of the rippling legacies and impacts of the talks. It affected every person and household on the island of Ireland, north and south, and following decades of conflict, sectarianism, pain, and over three thousands deaths, a thirty-page pamphlet now held the possible if not also fragile roadmap for a shared power and peaceful future.

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