Belfast Agreement conference: Politicians in Northern Ireland ‘took risks’, says Blair - as it happened

Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern and George Mitchell among speakers at three-day conference to mark 25th anniversary


Queen’s University Belfast is hosting a three-day conference on the Belfast Agreement, 25 years on from the settlement in Northern Ireland.

Follow live reporting of the first day below, which will include speeches and panel discussions featuring many of the key figures behind the peace deal.

In a keynote speech, George Mitchell, former US special envoy who chaired the all party talks that led to the agreement, said the peace is “not guaranteed” and cannot be allowed to slip away.

The conference also heard from former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, as well as discussions between various former senior figures from Northern Ireland political parties.

A final panel talk will feature other key figures involved in the deal, such as former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and former US president Bill Clinton.

For context, below is some previous reporting.

Our Northern Editor Freya McClements has a recent piece on the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement here.

In this piece, Fintan O’Toole explores the legacy of the deal: We must reclaim the great democratic spirit of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

In another article here, Freya McClements speaks to unionists who voted “No” to the Belfast Agreement in 1998.


While that concludes over live coverage of the Queen’s conference, you can read our Northern correspondent Seanín Graham’s full report on former US senator and envoy George Mitchell’s keynote speech here, with more coverage and analysis from Northern Editor Freya McClements due to land on later.


Closing the panel debate, Blair also appeals for current political leaders to break the present deadlock.

“We know that peace isn’t perfect, we know the institutions have often been rocky and unstable as they are today. But we also know that Northern Ireland is a much better place than before the Good Friday Agreement.

“The only thing I would say to todays leaders is, I think when you stand back and reflect, you know in your heart of hearts what the right thing to do is, and you should just get on and do it,” he says.


In his concluding remarks, Ahern says a lot of work went into trying to get the DUP “onside” in the years after the agreement.

The people of Northern Ireland needed them now to get “back on the track” and re-enter power sharing in Stormont.

“There’s too many big things to be dealing with than to be arguing about some detail that was caused over something or another, I’m not ever sure what it is even. So just lets move forward and try and make this work,” he says.


Bill Clinton says the respect and time invested in the process of negotiations from all parties, led him to believe at the end “people wouldn’t walk away”.

“I think the womens’ groups, the other peace groups, all those kids that became public figures who gave speeches pleading to give them a safe future, had an impact,” he says.


“It was a rollercoaster all the way through, but we had … a framework that people thought was essentially fair”, Blair says.

This included the principle of consent that any constitutional change would need the majority support of the public, and also that the institutions of Northern Ireland need to be reformed.

The former UK prime minister says the nervousness of the “political consequences of failure” during the height of the negotiations was a spur to the talks.


As US president, Clinton says prior to formal all party talks he would use the annual St Patrick’s Day event in the White House as an “excuse” to get politicians from the different sides in the North together. “To invite people there and get them to talk to each other, or talk to me individually,” he says.


“The people who had the really difficult jobs were the politicians in Northern Ireland, because they were taking risks”, to change long held approaches, Blair says.

The former Labour leader said it was important that they “agreed to talk to everybody”, such as Sinn Féin.


Ahern, who became taoiseach for the first time in 1997 as leader of Fianna Fáil, similarly said the Troubles was an issue where “you felt you had to try” to negotiate a solution.

Bill Clinton recalls facing major pressure over a commitment to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland, as well as a decision to approve a visa for Gerry Adams to visit the US during the Troubles.


Blair says when he came to power as prime minister in 1997 “everything kind of aligned” to push for an agreement in Northern Ireland. “There is always this moment in time when things seem to come together, so I felt it was worth at least giving it a shot,” he says.


The final panel talk today has kicked off, which will see a discussion between the political leaders of the Irish, UK and US at the time of the agreement, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and former US president Bill Clinton. The talk is being chaired by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.


A bust of George Mitchell was unveiled at Queen’s University during the conference


Ian Paisley Jnr, a DUP MP, says politicians who opposed the Belfast Agreement at the time were “equally courageous”.

Politics in Northern Ireland has returned to a “state of tension”, and the unionist community is “out of love” with its political institutions at present, he says.

“We have got to work hard at making this thing work better, work smarter,” he adds.



Reg Empey, former Ulster Unionist Party leader, criticises the fact it is unionists would are keeping Stormont suspended, which he says is like “having a car and keeping it in the garage”.

He also criticises the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations over recent years as “maybe the worst example of statecraft in my lifetime”.


Mark Durkan, a previous leader of the SDLP, said if his late colleague John Hume, who died in 2020, could contribute to the discussion he would likely be talking about the economic opportunity for Northern Ireland, as well as “fretting” about Brexit.


Prof Monica McWilliams, a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition political party, said opposition to the UK government’s controversial Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, has “united all parties” in the North, which she adds “doesn’t happen often”.


Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams says the Belfast Agreement “wasn’t a destination … but the beginning of a new journey”, referencing the opportunity for a vote in the future for a united Ireland.


Our Northern Editor Freya McClements is reporting from the conference, you can find her on Twitter here


As the conference gets under way again, there is a short tribute to politicians involved in the Belfast Agreement who have since died, including John Hume, Martin McGuinness, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, David Trimble, David Ervine, Seamus Mallon and Dr Mo Mowlam.


One of the stand out moments of the conference from earlier, a standing ovation for former US senator George Mitchell as he concluded his speech


The second panel talk after lunch will feature a discussion between current and former senior figures in various political parties in Northern Ireland.

The first session will hear from former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Mark Durkan, former leader of the SDLP, Reg Empey, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader, as well as Prof Monica McWilliams of the Northern Ireland women’s coalition.

The second session will hear from Ian Paisley Jnr of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dawn Purvis, former Progressive Unionist Party leader, as well as Gary McMichael, who was the leader of the Ulster Democratic Party, and John Alderdice, former Alliance Party leader.


Watching in the audience, UK minister of State for Northern Ireland Steve Baker describes George Mitchell’s speech earlier as “absolutely spellbinding” and the “best I ever heard”. High praise from the senior Conservative and arch Brexiter.


Former president Mary McAleese points out that there are many areas in Northern Ireland who still face major socio-economic disadvantage.

“There are hard to reach communities here, probably when they hear us talking about peace dividends say, ‘where?’,” she says.


Powell, who was Downing Street chief of staff in the mid-1990s, says he believes it would be a “mistake” to change the system of power-sharing in the “middle of a crisis”. Any reforms of the Belfast Agreement could only be brought in after Stormont was up and running again, he says.



Former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy, who was Mo Mowlam’s deputy, questions whether there should be some new type of framework for government in the North, which allows for disagreements between parties but not for Stormont to be collapsed.


Liz O’Donnell, who was elected as a Progressive Democrat TD, said it was a regret of those involved in creating the agreement that the political power-sharing institutions in the North have only sat “fitfully” in the years since.


The first panel talk of the conference, being chaired by former president Mary McAleese, is now hearing from former ministers and officials in the Irish and UK governments.

The panel is made up of Johnathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Tony Blair, Paul Murphy, who was secretary of state for NI, Liz O’Donnell, former minister of state in the Department of Foreign Affairs, and senior Irish diplomat Tim O’Connor.



Concluding his speech, Mitchell says in approving the agreement in votes on both sides of the Border, “the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland showed others the possibility of hope”. The agreement stood as an example to Israelis and Palestinians, Columbians, Africans, and Americans, he says.

“Don’t let it slip away”


The peace that “surrounds us now is not guaranteed” Mitchell says, while noting the deal did not resolve all issues and was the “best that could be achieved at that time”.


Mitchell recalls a year into the all-party talks, at which point no progress had been made and the anger, obstacles and hostility “all seemed endless”.

At that time his son Andrew was born and he says he was for the first time considering leaving Northern Ireland, but it was during a discussion in the hospital that his wife Heather encouraged him to “go back and give it one last try” to find a deal.


The room stands for a moment of silence to mark the more than 3,000 people who were killed in the violence during the Troubles.

Mitchell also pauses to take a moment to pay tribute to the political figures involved in the peace process.

“Without John Hume, there would not have been a peace process. Without David Trimble, there would not have been a peace agreement,” he says.


Mitchell, a former leading figure in the Democrats, said Northern Ireland continued to “wrestle” with their disagreements.

He says if he was to give one piece of advice to the people in Northern Ireland it would be: “Don’t always be so hard on yourselves, at the same time never ever give up on the belief that we all can be better and do better”.

Mitchell says there are still some people in politics in the North who he calls the “100 per cent’ers”, who wanted everything on their terms.

The former US politician says he rejects the notion and adds that “reasoned, principled compromise” was and remained essential. “The only way to emerge from the rubble of conflict is to learn to understand one another”, he says.


Delivering the keynote address, George Mitchell, who chaired the all party talks that led to the agreement, says in voting to back the deal the people of Northern Ireland “overwhelmingly rejected political violence as a way to resolve their differences”.


Former US secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says the “credit for peace goes to the brave people of Northern Ireland, who took risks for peace” at the time.

“There wouldn’t be a Good Friday Agreement to celebrate today if it were not for the women of Northern Ireland,” she says.


Professor Ian Greer, president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast opens the conference, outlining that Northern Ireland remains on “the journey” when it comes to peace.