Commemorative event mixes reflections on the past and hopes for the future

Political leaders of this generation and the last listened intently as the words of young singers from across Belfast resonated around Stormont’s cavernous Great Hall.

In a building that has been in cold storage for almost as long as it has been active since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the lyrics served as a reminder of what the 1998 peace accord meant to many of those who supported it 25 years ago.

Ten-year-old David McKenna, a double kidney transplant recipient, led the Belfast School of Performing Arts with a solo at the outset of “You’re The Voice”.

“We’re not going to sit in silence, we’re not going to live with fear,” he sang before the rest of the choir joined in.

Bertie Ahern speaking during the ceremony
Bertie Ahern speaking during the ceremony (William Cherry/Presseye/PA)

It was a powerful beginning to a commemorative event that mixed reflections on the past, frustrations at the present and hopes for the future.

Political veterans of the Good Friday talks were introduced on stage by members of the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly. It is one assembly in the region that is still meeting.

Later in the ceremony the same aspiring politicians read out the Joint Declaration of Support that the signatories of the Belfast Agreement composed together in 1998.

“The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering.

“We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”

He also thanked all the local politicians who were involved in the tortuous talks process.

“You have been wonderful friends and colleagues of mine and while I fought and argued with you continuously, I still love you all,” he said with a grin.

Mark Durkan, an SDLP negotiator who would go on to serve as a deputy first minister, spoke of how the deal had moved Northern Ireland “away from the politics of the latest atrocity”.

Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams focused much of his speech on the current impasse at Stormont. He characterised the deadlock as yet another example of the propensity of Northern Ireland politics to “fall down”.

“We’re very good at that,” he added.

Gerry Adams speaking during the ceremony in the Great Hall at Stormont
Gerry Adams speaking during the ceremony in the Great Hall at Stormont (William Cherry/Presseye/PA)

Lord Alderdice, the former Alliance Party leader who was the first speaker of the new Assembly created by the powersharing settlement, insisted the challenges of 1998 were far greater than those of the present day.

“If we could succeed 25 years ago there’s no reason why we should not be able to move forward now and into the next 25 years,” he said in a video message from Sarajevo.

Ulster Unionist grandee Sir Reg Empey said it was important to remember those who had opposed the Good Friday accord, as well as those who supported it.

He also reflected on the contribution from the young singers who performed inside Parliament Buildings.

“They are the second generation who has grown up in this country who have no working knowledge of what violence and our Troubles meant, isn’t that terrific,” he said, to spontaneous applause throughout the hall.

“It there’s nothing else it has achieved that in and of itself is a victory.”

The DUP, which is currently blocking devolution at Stormont in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements, was the only main local party not to address the commemoration, having declined the opportunity.

Dana Masters singing during the ceremony
Dana Masters singing during the ceremony (William Cherry/Presseye/PA)

The DUP would only sign up to powersharing eight years later, when it secured changes to the architecture of the settlement in the St Andrews’ Agreement.

While no party figure addressed the commemoration, some DUP MLAs were seated in the audience.

Loyalist negotiator and Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson did address the event, as did former Women’s Coalition member Dr Monica McWilliams and ex-Northern Ireland secretary Paul Murphy.

There was also a poignant video tribute to those politicians who have died in the 25 years since the deal was struck, including Nobel Peace Prize winners David Trimble and John Hume and also Martin McGuinness, David Ervine, Mo Mowlam and Seamus Mallon.

The final contribution from the class of ’98 was unsurprisingly left to the US diplomat who chaired the talks and whose name has become synonymous with the peace process, Senator George Mitchell.

He said those who agreed the deal did what was right for the people they represented and history will judge them favourably.

Mr Mitchell then challenged the current generation of politicians to show the “same courage and vision” and do all they could to restore devolution.

As the ceremony concluded, the business of removing the chairs and deconstructing the stage began.

When the Great Hall of the crisis-hit legislature will see such a buzz of activity again remains uncertain.

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