Good Friday Agreement changed history, Mitchell tells anniversary event

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The people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders changed history 25 years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, a major conference in Belfast has been told.

Former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the negotiations in 1998, also said the deal set an example for peace around the world, and urged people in the region not to let it “slip away”.

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is hosting the Agreement 25 conference as part of her role as chancellor at Queen’s University in Belfast, urged current politicians to move forward with “the same spirit of unstoppable grit and resolve” as their predecessors had done.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are due to attend later in the week.

The agreement largely ended Northern Ireland’s 30-year sectarian conflict.

Making the keynote address at the opening of the conference, Mr Mitchell said: “Twenty-five years ago the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders changed the course of history.

“It was a day when history opened itself to hope.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Sir Tony Blair is among the architects of the Good Friday Agreement taking part in a conference in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

“They overwhelmingly rejected political violence as a way to resolve their differences.

“If history teaches us anything, it is that history itself is never finished.

“On the evening the agreement was reached, I commended the men and women who wrote and signed it, but I also said it would take other leaders in the future to safeguard and extend their work.

“And so it has.

“I am here, with many others, to sound that bell one more time.”

He said: “To find workable answers to the daily problems of the present, to preserve peace.

“To leave to the next generation peace, freedom, opportunity and the hope of a better future for their children.”

At the end of his address, Mr Mitchell said the referendum which approved the Good Friday Agreement had shown people around the world the “possibility of hope”.

He said: “When you approved the agreement you were also talking to Israelis and Palestinians, to Colombians, to Africans, Asians, to Americans – in fact you were talking to the world.

“This is an agreement for peace and for the future, not just here, but everywhere.”

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
George Mitchell said the Good Friday Agreement was for the world (Niall Carson/PA)

The Good Friday Agreement created powersharing institutions at Stormont that involved nationalists and unionists governing Northern Ireland together in a mandatory coalition arrangement.

While the pact largely ended the Troubles, which had claimed more than 3,600 lives since the late 1960s, it has failed to bring long-term political stability in the region and devolution has collapsed several times in the last two decades.

The anniversary comes amid another period of collapse, with the DUP blocking powersharing in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The barriers were first introduced under the Withdrawal Agreement’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.

The UK and EU recently agreed the Windsor Framework as a way to cut the red tape created by the protocol.

While the DUP says the framework has gone some way to address its concerns about the protocol, it says significant problems remain.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Hillary Clinton speaking during the three-day international conference at Queen’s University Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Mrs Clinton said the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit trade provided Northern Ireland with an opportunity to become an economic hub for global trade and investment.

“While the Good Friday Agreement is an enormous achievement, we know that peace, prosperity and progress that so many have worked tirelessly to achieve remains incomplete,” she said.

“The work of integration and housing and schools is far from finished, neighbourhoods remain divided, poverty and unemployment persist, the difficulties of the past continue to threaten the present.

“You know, we are at a standstill with the Northern Ireland Assembly no longer functioning. But the Windsor agreement provides a path forward not just for convening but for positioning Northern Ireland as an economic hub for global trade and investment through privileged access to the UK and all of its trading partners, as well as the EU.”

“But you have always found a way through and I believe you will again, because the stakes for the people of Northern Ireland are so high.

“You stand as an example to the world of how even the staunchest adversaries can overcome differences to work together for the common and greater good.

“So, I encourage everyone now to move forward with the same spirit of unstoppable grit and resolve that brought the peace 25 years ago. Your friends in the United States will be behind you all the way as you work toward peace, prosperity and stability that lasts.”

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