Finally, the end was in sight. “Nearly there,” one member of staff remarked encouragingly to a tired colleague as they ushered yet another set of dignitaries through the grounds of Queen’s University Belfast.
The three-day conference last week – which brought together an impressive array of political leaders past and present – was the climax of events marking the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, the landmark peace deal signed on Good Friday 1998 which ended the Troubles.
In Northern Ireland, the acknowledgment of that anniversary has been under way since at least this Good Friday; in the past two weeks, there have been visits from both Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, prompting many to jokingly remark how Belfast waited years for one US president and then two came along at once.
Along with Clinton came a host of others for a remarkable gathering at Queen’s that will never be repeated: Hillary Clinton, former senator George Mitchell, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Leo Varadkar, Rishi Sunak, Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson, Micheál Martin, Ursula von der Leyen, Maroš Šefčovič, Ritchie Neal and many more, not least many current and former political leaders from Northern Ireland – though not that of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson.
Across Northern Ireland there have been art installations, exhibitions and seminars; victims and survivors group Wave Trauma marked the anniversary by watching the sun rise over the sea on the morning of Good Friday, while the hottest theatre ticket in town was for the sold-out Agreement at the Lyric.
There has been much reminiscence and reflection, along with analysis of what was achieved and what remains to be done, as is right and proper on an anniversary which altered the course of Northern Ireland’s future.
As George Mitchell emphasised in his remarkable speech on Monday morning, from the start of the Troubles until 1998, more than 3,500 people were killed, and an estimated 50,000 injured; in the 25 years since the agreement was reached, there have been about 164 security-related deaths.
When he then asked the 1,000 or so people in the hall “to stand and to honour all these lives with a moment of silence” it was a rare and powerful acknowledgment of the individual and collective loss caused by the conflict.
Powerful too was his instruction to the “current and future leaders of Northern Ireland to act with courage and vision, as their predecessors did 25 years ago”; the clear call these two weeks, repeated again and again by Mitchell, Biden, Clinton and many others, has been for the restoration of the powersharing institutions set up by the agreement – or, in other words, for the DUP to end its boycott and go back in.
The great and the good can lecture us all they want for a cheap round of applause but it won’t change the political reality... berating unionists won’t solve the problem— Jeffrey Donaldson
As has been pointed out again and again, this was an anniversary marred by the lack of a functioning assembly or executive, bodies set up as a result of the Belfast Agreement. As was signalled well in advance, there remains no immediate prospect of the DUP returning to Stormont until, at the very least, after the council elections next month, and potentially not until the autumn.
In the absence of a functioning government – and therefore with no executive to make decisions – the problems continue to mount, not least the gigantic budgetary black hole, ever lengthening waiting lists, and the ongoing impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
So now that the great and the good have departed, the security detail stood down and the black SUVs with the tinted windows have rolled out of town, what have these few weeks achieved?
The DUP’s rhetoric is as defiant as ever; Donaldson took to Twitter to remark “the great and the good can lecture us all they want for a cheap round of applause but it won’t change the political reality... berating unionists won’t solve the problem”.
This was in response to the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, who had said in an earlier speech that the “single biggest threat” to Northern Ireland’s place in the union was the continued absence of government and “real leadership was about knowing when to say yes and having the courage to do so”.
In so doing, he was clearly upping the ante; Heaton-Harris has said previously that this situation cannot go on forever, and this was the UK government’s most direct attack on the DUP thus far, albeit one softened with a carrot of the economic opportunities that would come from political stability.
To return to the example of 25 years ago, among the lessons of the Belfast Agreement are that progress happens when the Irish and British governments are on the same page and that “visitors to Northern Ireland” – as Donaldson termed Biden and his team – can change the political dynamic; these past few weeks, the clear message from London and Dublin is of a greatly improved relationship, reinforced by declarations of friendship between Varadkar and Sunak – and their first bilateral meeting as leaders of their respective countries – while at the Queen’s conference.
The focus in these weeks has been about marking the agreement; when the heavy political lifting begins again, these improved relationships, which were key in 1998 and which remain key now, must also do their work.
As Queen’s professor Katy Hayward pointed out, commenting above a picture of a meeting between the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, the US Special Economic Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy III, and Heaton-Harris: “The EU, the USA, the UK, all backing Northern Ireland [population 1.9 million] and committed to seeing it prosper.”
According to UN figures, that 1.9 million puts Northern Ireland somewhere between Latvia and North Macedonia, which would both surely be highly envious of such privileged access.
That US presidents and a host of other powerful people can call for a resolution to the North’s political problems and pledge their support to do so is both a valuable recognition of Northern Ireland on the world stage, and one which could bring tangible benefits, not least economic.
In turn, these weeks have given Northern Ireland the opportunity to project a picture of itself which is completely different from that of 25 years ago.
Joe Biden’s visit to the new, glass-fronted, Ulster University campus in Belfast was accompanied by frequent references to the fact that nobody would ever have dared build such an edifice in 1998; similarly, for three days the images of Queen’s which were watched around the world told of a university – and a place – confident in the global arena. Even the sun shone.
Those who helped bring about the agreement walked on air against our better judgment. Now you have a hard floor to walk on. For God’s sakes, get up and walk— Bill Clinton
Full figures are yet to come, but the university estimates that more than 5,000 people attended the conference over two days, including about 1,000 international visitors and 30 from leading US universities, a particular target for Queen’s.
Financially, an outlay of approximately £250,000 (€282,000) plus an additional contribution from its philanthropic organisation yielded media coverage with a value estimated at £14m and seen in 49 countries, plus £540,000 raised thus far through a gala dinner – a worthwhile return in anyone’s estimation.
“The reputational boost for Belfast, the university and Northern Ireland as a whole is immesurable,” said the Queen’s vice-chancellor, Professor Ian Greer. “Money could not buy what we have achieved.”
He is right. For a full accounting, the benefits which are less easy to quantify must also be added up, those moments which cannot be measured but which live long in the memory and in the heart: the excitement of young students at hearing Bill Clinton speak, or the poignancy of standing with Monica McWilliams at the peace tree she planted in 1998, or the signed message of hope from former senator George Mitchell to a colleague’s young children.
In such context, what could be more fitting than to borrow from Seamus Heaney, as Clinton did in his final address this week?
Summing up the advances made in Northern Ireland in the past 25 years, he said those who helped bring about the agreement “walked on air against our better judgment”.
“Now you have a hard floor to walk on. For God’s sakes, get up and walk.”