David Ford’s opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph on the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement

On that momentous day – the 10th April 1998 – when the Belfast Agreement was finally signed, there was a sense of relief on the faces of the many different politicians and Government officials who had been part of the talks. There was however awareness that this was only the beginning and was by no means the end of the process. It would be the foundation that would give the politicians in Northern Ireland the opportunity and the institutions to dramatically transform our society.

It was however not certain that we would ever reach agreement that would get the support of all sides. After reading initial drafts, the Alliance negotiating team knew that we were still some way from achieving a final text. I remember watching the then Alliance Leader John Alderdice holding a press conference a few days before Good Friday in which he said that Tony Blair better get on a plane to Northern Ireland fast.

During the talks we saw great statesmanship from the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, even to the extent of returning directly to the negotiations after his mother was laid to rest. Whenever any senior figure arrived at Castle Buildings to enter the talks they would be corned by journalists trying to find out any little bit of information or indication of how it was going. However when the Taoiseach’s car arrived, Eamon Maillie stepped forward to say that they would not be asking any questions and to offer his condolences on behalf of the assembled media.

As the days ticked by and we got nearer and nearer to the deadline of midnight on the Thursday, some of the officials were getting more and more anxious as to whether or not we would be able to reach any sort of an agreement. I recall sitting in a BBC studio as I watched the clock reach that deadline. After finishing my interview I talked to a few people in person and over the phone, and I could tell that the mood of many people had dropped. As I drove back to Castle Buildings, we had to go past anti-agreement protestors. If anything, their presence spurred us on.

Despite this deadline passing and the memory of other failed attempts to reach agreement in the previous thirty years, there was still a feeling that this was somehow different. The draft that we had by that point was close to the final text and suggested that the different sides knew that we could not miss this opportunity.

There was a belief that we needed to keep everybody in the building on that Friday otherwise people would give up on these talks and say that we might be able to try again in couple of years. There was a sense that the time was now and that the circumstances that led up to April 1998 would disappear and might not be seen again.

Eventually after further exhaustive talks on Good Friday, agreement was reached. I was due to be interviewed for a radio show just before 5pm when all the parties were due to gather for that famous scene when the agreement was announced. I was able to announce to the radio station that we had the agreement before I had to cut short the interview to return for the unveiling of the Belfast Agreement.

While undoubtedly much was achieved that day 15 years ago, much of its potential remains unfulfilled. We were able to move our society forward but we have missed many opportunities that the Belfast Agreement presented us with. If we are to see the full benefits of the agreement then we need to tackle to single biggest issue facing Northern Ireland and that is the delivery of a shared future for everyone. As President Obama said two weeks ago, “There is urgent work still to be done – and there will be more tests to come”.

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