Good Friday Agreement: 'Much to celebrate' despite lack of political progress

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Senator George Mitchell (right) at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, at Queen's University in Belfast 

Senator George Mitchell, the US diplomat who chaired the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, insisted there was much to celebrate despite the current political impasse at Stormont.

"Northern Ireland is a much safer, much better, much more successful place than it was 20 years ago," he said.

"The agreement did not purport to be the solution to all the problems for all time in Northern Ireland."

He said the problems facing devolution could be resolved.

"New challenges emerge," he said.

"I believe that this challenge can be met, as were the challenges of 1998, through courageous political leadership."

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since last January.

However, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has expressed confidence in the future.

He said: "The institutions will be back in place. The Good Friday Agreement remains the accord which is going to guide politics on this island and arrangements on this island and relationships on this island into the foreseeable future.

"I think the future is very bright. There is always an ebb in a process. There is always and ebb and a flow. We are in an ebb, it is temporary."

British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked what reassurance she could give to people that Brexit will not undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

She said: "We're absolutely committed to the Belfast Agreement.

"We have been very clear throughout our discussions with the European Union on that.

"That was reflected in the joint report we agreed with the European Commission in December. It's been further reflected in the most recent discussions coming out of the March European Council.

"We are committed to the Belfast Agreement. This was hugely important.

"The huge progress we've seen in Northern Ireland, the peace and stability that we've seen that came after the Belfast Agreement that came when politicians of all parties and the UK and Irish governments sat down together and recognised the importance of establishing that stability for Northern Ireland for the future and we want to continue with that.

"We're absolutely committed to the Belfast Agreement."

Former Ulster Unionist leader and first minister Lord Trimble said he believed Brexit was being used by some to undermine the Agreement.

He said: "Brexit is one thing - the Agreement is completely different. There is no interaction between them at all.

"But what is happening at the moment is some people are trying to use Brexit to undermine the Agreement and I hope they are unsuccessful."

He also said "there was a good chance" of devolution returning to Northern Ireland this year, but conceded that "prediction" was a difficult thing.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Aherne said the Agreement would be a connection between the British and Irish governments post-Brexit.

"I think the Good Friday Agreement will now form the impetus for the British and Irish governments to meet - I would suggest every quarter - to build and continue relationships that Brexit has ruined and damaged."

He said it was important for ministers and civil servants to "collaborate" on "major issues".

He added: "The Good Friday Agreement, although we didn't intend it at the time, I think that now can replace that relationship.

"As far as Brexit is concerned and hard border, soft border, sunny side up border, every kind of border - there can be no border.

"It will not be acceptable in any event."

Tony Blair's former adviser Jonathan Powell said the strength of the Good Friday Agreement had "served" Northern Ireland, the UK and island of Ireland well over the past 20 years.

But he cautioned that it now faced two threats.

Mr Powell said: "One internal threat - which is the failure to get the Executive up and running. And that threat must be met and that does require real commitment by Number 10 Downing Street and the taoiseach.

"The Brexit challenge - the external challenge - is also a very serious one.

"Both governments and the EU are committed to no hard border, but the question is: how do you avoid a hard border? And a series of contradictory commitments were made in December and there is no logical easy way to meet all of those."

He said he could not see any way of avoiding a hard border other than Britain remaining in, at least, the Customs Union.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley described it as a "momentous day" and said progress must not be allowed to slip.

She said: "You cannot underestimate what has been achieved in Northern Ireland since that Agreement was signed.

"Both the UK and Irish Governments remain committed to the Good Friday Agreement, its institutions, its structures, its framework. We will work together tirelessly to restore that devolved government that we all know is so vital to the success of Northern Ireland.

"As we stand here today thinking about what was achieved 20 years ago let that be an inspiration to the politicians of today and let them know that the UK government and the Irish government stand resolute and determined to make a success of devolution and see government restored in Northern Ireland."

Meanwhile, Tánaiste and Dublin's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the Good Friday Agreement "changed history" on the island of Ireland.

He said: "Northern Ireland is a changed place. Belfast is an international city that is attracting investment.

"I think this week it is important to focus on the positives but also I think it is important that we would renew as well as remember in the context of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of what remains to be done, this is an Agreement that provides the basis for so much if we choose to implement it in full."

Mr Coveney also urged current political leaders to "reinvigorate" efforts to find a solution to the Stormont impasse.

He added: "To find a way forward through the challenges that our generation now has, whether that is linked to Brexit, to devolved government, whether it is linked to polarisation and challenges around reconciliation and legacy."

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