High tone and polite discussion will serve as the prelude to the leaders tomorrow. Can they get it together?

By its very nature with its illustrious cast , it would have been  too much to expect the great conference at Queen’s “Agreement 25”  to have conducted  a searching inquest into the strength and weaknesses of the Good Friday Agreement, or an inquiry into  the Windsor Framework as the device for returning the DUP to the Assembly. It became quickly clear that the dynamics were wrong.  Anyway it would have been one thing to talk about balancing arms decommissioning against a guaranteed seat in government, or parity of esteem with the principle of consent for constitutional  change ; quite another to argue over the degree of paper work needed  for different  goods to pass  through the green channel. I mean, how do you even discuss it in open forum without driving everybody nuts?

The sessions were conducted in an untypical atmosphere of hope, mutual respect and unstinting praise for what had been achieved over 25 years.  If sheer inspiration and commitment could achieve nirvana then George Mitchell’s speech set the gold standard, as Mick has reported. But over the first two days nobody was vulgar enough to enquire why it took seven years for the IRA to disarm or to confront the DUP with the question of what precise changes to the Framework   would persuade then to return to the Assembly. Perhaps over familiarity breeds neglect or at least excessive politeness.

Rather than review the overall course of proceedings I’d like to pick out some of the sharper and more salient points made during the course on Monday and Tuesday, restricted to the conference itself.

Following George Mitchell’s exhortations  I was surprised  to hear the mild mannered former secretary of state  Paul Murphy  Mo Mowlam’s  number 2 at the time get stuck right into Reform, encouraged by the vigorous chairing of the former President ( and pro- VC at Queen’s)  Mary McAleese .

“If we cannot resolve the Brexit implications then everything we achieved in the GFA will be put at risk” declared  wee Paul.

Mary, long unshackled from the constraints of the presidency asked archly; “Can we be assured that momentum  … will be maintained?”

Paul: “ It has to be resolved in Belfast. A  St Andrews 2 should be called if the parties cannot resolve it in the next couple of months.. If you work at it intensely over 4 days you can crack it.”

On handling the identity issues McAleese questioned whether the agreement had the capacity to solve those of them designed to protect unionists. She didn’t develop this intriguing theme.

As an equal partner to the Agreement  and with the label “ Sinn Fein IRA” left well behind Gerry Adams asked why it all taken so long  – 12 years after his first secret contacts with Fr Alec Reid .  Well, he should know but didn’t tell.  “There is now a peaceful way to end “English rule “(sic) in Ireland”... Sounding faintly menacing adding: “We are entering the phase of gentle persuasion.”

DUP participation was highly selective (J Donaldson had another pressing engagement apparently) and in Ian Paisley’s case downright eccentric in fending off a barrage of exhortation to return to the Assembly. “We had Big Beasts taking decisions.. Can we get Big Beasts working now?   (What about Jeffrey Ian?}

“This country (i.e. many DUP and TUV supporters)    is out of love with the Agreement and yet it could be the only way to save the Union” (They are my people, I am their leader and I must follow them).

Paisley and Emma Little Pengelly, cast as the acceptable face of the DUP stoutly insisted it was the DUP who had delivered the most successful phase of power sharing from 2007 to 2017 when Cash for Ash brought it down. Later it was left to former president Mary Robinson to regret that more DUP hadn’t attended. To be subject to more of that gentle persuasion, no doubt, just as she had dealt with warring Africans as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the GFA being her inspiration.

Only two speakers answered the question directly:” What would you have done differently?”

Gary McMichael, of the defunct Ulster Democratic Party once linked to the loyalist paramilitaries:  “On legacy issues we kicked the can down the road and on the issue of rights we tripped over them over the next ten years

John Alderdice the former Alliance leader and first Assembly Speaker has made a profession out of peace studies and negotiation.  Back in Molyneaux’s day as the consciously inert UUP leader; “W e should have contacted the IRA earlier. “ I saw the colour drain from his face.

.” There is no hope then?”


Maximum implementation should have meant dealing with weapons. We failed most over victims.”

Prefiguring Naomi Long later, Alderdice made Alliance’s pitch to move from parallel consent to a voluntary coalition with a qualified majority of 65% to 70%.

“Be careful for what you wish for, “hinted Paisley darkly. “The whole thing could unravel “.

The star line up of Clinton, Blair and Ahern was introduced by the not unbiased Hillary as chair.

“Each had a unique personality to connect with others” (which as presidential candidate she didn’t add, she somewhat lacked. But just think how the world might have different without Trump. And here she was, sitting in the Whitla Hall).

Bill reminisced lovingly and at length about defying John Major by granting Adams the visa to visit the US which Clinton believes unlocked the whole peace process by giving Adams the status to negotiate.

Blair captured the last minute rush to Mitchell’s deadline with appalling frankness.  “We had to wing it… we couldn’t go outside and say, It Didn’t Work!”  And typically intuitively when pressed for his advice today:

“They know in their hearts what is the right thing to do”.

Days One and Two  combined to create a fair prelude to the grand finale tomorrow Wednesday. This will be  attended by all  seven former UK prime ministers of set speeches by Hillary Clinton, Charles Michel president of the EU Council , Ursula von der Leyen, president  of the Commission,  President Clinton, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

From that line up surely to God some realistic ideas for getting the show back on the road should emerge.   The sense of occasion is almost  over powering. Can they possibly match it? Too big to fail?

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