Elephants filled Queen’s University’s Whitla Hall this week where a major media event was organised to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Among those whose absence was felt were former SDLP leader John Hume, who is struggling with dementia, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who passed away last year, and former British Direct Ruler Mo Mowlam, who died in 2005. Nevertheless, there was a mood of celebration at an event which literally sung the praises of a peace deal credited with effectively ending the recent conflict in the north of Ireland.
The most heartfelt praise was for former US Senator George Mitchell, whose political skill and negotiating prowess were universally praised.
He told the audience: “Many of you have thanked me for my work here, my response is that it is I who should be grateful. And I am, for you have filled an inner void that I didn’t even know existed.
“I am an American and very proud of it but a large part of my heart and my emotions will forever be with the people of Northern Ireland.”
The afternoon’s panel discussions were a Hollywood-ready mix of anecdote and nostalgia, and a selected audience of around 500 were appreciative of the dealmakers who brought an end to a conflict in which thousands of lives were lost.
The agreement brought demilitarisation by the British Army, the disbandment of the Provisional IRA and the release of hundreds of republican and loyalist prisoners.
But twenty years later, unresolved and unimplemented aspects of the 1998 Agreement continue to haunt the north of Ireland, including some of those who participated in the negotiations.
Former SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon brought a chill to proceedings when he said he was angered by the “hypocrisies” of current politics in the north. A key nationalist architect of the deal, he accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of creating “political silos”, debasing the process and “almost Balkanising” the north of Ireland.
The former Newry and Armagh MP said he would become “sad” and “angry” when at home watching television news.
“I watch the hypocrisies which are unbelievable and the untruths which are believable,” he said.
In the days before the gathering, comments by former UUP leader David Trimble also cast a pall over events when he mentioned two unmentionables in a single breath -- Brexit, which is weighing massively on what remains intact of the deal, as well as the continuing violence of loyalist paramilitaries groups who signed up to it. The Noble Peace Prize Winner delivered a sharply off-message intervention when he warned of loyalist attacks against the south of Ireland if Dublin continues to oppose the return of a militarised border.
Probably the biggest elephant in the room lurked behind former DUP leader Peter Robinson, who in 1998 was roaring in protest at the gates of Stormont as the deal was being hammered out.
Most unionists now support his party who continue to reject the agreement, and Robinson was proud of the fact.
“The specifics of the Belfast Agreement itself, clearly I oppose - I think I was right in opposing it; I think the unionist community validated that by their subsequent votes in the electoral process,” he said.
The event was criticised by a range of politicians who stayed away, including a number of senior DUP figures.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots said praise for the Good Friday Agreement “as the deliverer of peace” had done a “grave injustice to the men and women who put their life on the line infiltrated the IRA”.
Another DUP figure, Christopher Stalford, described the event in colourful terms as a “glutinous, nauseous, back slapping exercise” that “never made me more glad that I was with the ‘No’ campaign in 98.”
An even more hardline unionist, TUV leader Jim Allister, stood on the steps of the Whitla Hall and handed out leaflets to the guests as they went in. The two-page leaflet listed ‘deceptions’ in the Agreement which Mr Allister labelled a “failure”.
The collapse of power-sharing a year ago, in part due to the DUP’s refusal to implement outstanding agreements, was something which the celebrants felt obliged to address, and the former premiers did so in hopeful tones.
Bill Clinton urged the politicians present to “inspire the world” again. The former US President, who was awarded the Freedom of Belfast on Tuesday night alongside Senator Mitchell, spoke directly to political leaders who sat in the second row.
In his signature folksy style, he told the audience: “I’m sitting here and my view is [current DUP leader] Arlene [Foster] and [Sinn Fein leader] Mary Lou [McDonald] sitting in the same row. We just gotta figure out how to get them to sit next to each other.”
He described the Good Friday Agreement as a “work of genius that is applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy”.
He added: “Because the rest of the world continues to do foolish things. You do smart things. Save the peace, save the freedom, save the democracy, inspire the world.”
Tony Blair said the important thing was that the conflict had ended.
“The important thing is not to compare where we are with where we would ideally want to be because ideally we would want to be in a better place than where we are,” he said.
“The comparison is with where we are and where we were. The important thing is to remember when we used to wake up every day to the news of death, destruction and and terrorism.”
Optimism was the byword and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams predicted his party and the DUP would eventually go back into government.
“We’re in a bit of an ebb at the moment, a bit of stagnation,” said Mr Adams. “That’s temporary. That will pass. And we’ll be back to sorting these issues out.”
Describing the 1998 agreement as a “highly significant development in Anglo-Irish history”, Mr Adams added that the accord could still act as a “template for the times ahead” in fresh political negotiations aimed at restoring power-sharing.
The event also saw criticism by some republicans. The President of Republican Sinn Fein Des Dalton said the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement was “a dysfunctional and undemocratic sectarian statelet”.
RSF campaigned against the 1998 Agreement, and Mr Dalton claimed his arguments that it institutionalised sectarianism had been borne out.
“The two dominant political blocs, the Provisionals and the DUP are two sides of the same sectarian coin,” he said. “Corruption and nepotism is the currency of this outpost of colonialism.
“Since 1921 there have been five Anglo-Irish agreements all of which have failed to provide a settlement of the conflict in Ireland. The reason that all of these have failed is because all are based on the partionist set-up, imposed upon the Irish people in 1920/21 by the British Government with the threat of “immediate and terrible war”.
“The root cause of the conflict in Ireland is partition and the continued British military and political occupation. A New Ireland can never emerge from the Stormont Agreement because it copper fastens the partition of the historic Irish nation.”
Raymond McCord, whose son Raymond Jnr was beaten to death by the UVF in North Belfast in 1997 and his body left in a quarry, also criticised the celebrations.
“These events have practically excluded victims from Northern Ireland, I am not talking about victims from the unionist community, this is all victims,” he said. “Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement victims have been betrayed by politicians.”
He is seeking an inquest into his son’s death. He said: “Why should we be doing this 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement?”
He also criticised the reporting of this week’s loyalist claim that their paramilitaries would now support the rule of law.
“The whole week has been a disgrace for victims, it has just been a repeat of what has happened over the years. They are all telling us what to do and what is best for us.”
The main victims’ issues had been ignored by the official events, he said. “Why don’t they sit down with ordinary working-class people like myself? What is the government and organisers frightened of? Why are they frightened of victims sitting on a panel? They don’t want the truth to be said, they are frightened.”