Former Irish News correspondent recalls dramatic hours leading up to signing of the Good Friday Agreement

Former Irish News political correspondent William Graham recalls the dramatic hours leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998

Tony Blair, George Mitchell and Bertie Ahern at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Picture by Dan Chung

TWENTY years ago at dawn on Good Friday, politicians had a tear in their eyes as they took a walk in the clear light along a path lightly dusted with snow frost.

They knew that they were trudging step by step towards an historic deal.

The day before, the world's press had gathered outside Castle Buildings to report on the talks which involved the UUP, SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, PUP, Women's Coalition, UDP and Labour.

I was then political correspondent for The Irish News and had covered the Troubles and the talks process leading up to this extraordinary moment.

The press were housed in cabins in front of the Castle Buildings fence. I remember sharing telephones with several newspaper colleagues including the Belfast Telegraph political correspondent Martina Purdy who is now a nun on the Falls Road.

Castle Buildings itself is an awful piece of architecture, like something one would find in the suburbs of old East Berlin before the wall came down. A warren of corridors, few shower facilities, and according to Irish diplomats "poor food''.

Sometimes from our vantage point we could at night make out the shadows of figures on the upper floor offices such as John Hume, chief architect of the peace process.

On the Thursday afternoon there was an usual happening - the press being photographed. We lined up with talks chairman George Mitchell, Secretary of State Mo Mowlan and Irish foreign affairs minister David Andrews for a group picture.

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There were moments of seriousness but also hoped-for joy. Tommy Sands, the folk musician, turned up with a group of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren, and musicians with bodhráns and lambeg drums.

As darkness fell on Thursday, Ian Paisley held an impromptu press conference and was booed by loyalists. Little did we know then that he and Martin McGuinness would end up sharing power after the St Andrews Agreement.

The talks moved on into early night time and I had to prepare a front page piece for a special limited edition of The Irish News.

The minutes ticked past and I knew that I urgently needed to file my story.

Then I received a briefing call from inside the talks in the early hours which gave me details on the shape of strands two and three, almost ready.

My story gave the details of the private talks and my interpretation that on Good Friday the north was awakening to a new dawn.

Of course the complete agreement would not come until later in the day and at times it was touch and go whether it would emerge.

At around 8.15am talks chairman George Mitchell received a call from President Bill Clinton. The president could not sleep and had been up all night in the White House.

This was to be the first of several crucial calls Clinton was to make to David Trimble, Gerry Adams and John Hume as well as Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. The push was on.

The parties had in their hands amended documents including on strand one which related to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly, decommissioning and the release of prisoners.

By mid-afternoon there were strains within the UUP but Blair was able to give Trimble a letter on strand one and on decommissioning. This moment flipped the outcome and Trimble took the courageous step to go ahead.

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The Ulster Unionists at 4.45pm were ready to do the business and at 5pm Mitchell called a plenary session.

For George Mitchell it was one of the most emotional moments in his life when he was able to announce that the British and Irish governments and the political parties had reached agreement.

The rest as they say is history and we had been to the mountain top.

The Good Friday Agreement was not perfect but it was the best that could be negotiated at the time. In a referendum north and south it was overwhelmingly endorsed.

During my years as a political correspondent I did not vote in any election because of my job trying to fairly cover politics.

I did however go to the ballot box once. This was to vote yes for the Belfast Agreement because I believed in a pathway to peace and the saving of thousands of lives from the cold grave.

Today I selected a book from the shelf in my home at Rostrevor. It is The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney. One of his lines reads "walk on air against your better judgement".

The book is signed by Heaney "for William Graham - keep the level high".

That is what we were doing two decades ago at Castle Buildings.

We have to keep up our spirits and hope that the Good Friday Agreement will survive and sooner or later the political institutions can be made to work.

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