Northern Ireland

Opinion split of influence of U2's historic Good Friday Agreement Waterfront gig

Bono holds aloft the arms of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble SDLP leader John Hume on stage at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. Picture by Pacemaker
Bono holds aloft the arms of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble SDLP leader John Hume on stage at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. Picture by Pacemaker

THE head of the campaign that helped secure a resounding endorsement for the Good Friday Agreement in the 1998 referendum is sceptical about claims that a high-profile concert days before the historic vote helped swing the result.

Public affairs consultant Quintin Oliver, the director of the cross-party Yes campaign, believes the performance by U2 and Ash at Belfast's Waterfront Hall 20 years ago tomorrow added to the "positive narrative" but didn't sway public opinion on its own.

However, others involved in the concert, which saw the first public handshake between then SDLP leader John Hume and his Ulster Unionist counterpart David Trimble, believe it gave the Yes campaign a major lift as support was flagging.

The brainchild of the SDLP's Tim Attwood, the concert took place four days before voters went to the polls to deliver their verdict on the Good Friday Agreement, which had been signed weeks earlier following months of negotiations.

It saw U2 play alongside Downpatrick band Ash in front of 2,000 mainly sixth-form, schoolchildren.

In the days running up to the event, the Yes campaign was faltering, hit by the negative publicity around the high-profile release from jail of the IRA's Balcombe Street Gang and loyalist killer Michael Stone.

In his new book Trouble Songs, journalist and broadcaster Stuart Bailie dedicates an entire chapter to the May 18 Waterfront gig.

He was compere for the evening and recalls it as a "seat-of-the-pants" affair.

"It certainly wasn't part of any reasoned strategy – it was an interruption but it felt sincere and music broke through so many of the political conventions," he told The Irish News.

"David Trimble talking about Elvis, John Hume in tears, the handshake and the first time that youth was on the agenda – rock 'n' roll saved Northern Ireland."

The author believes the concert had a major impact and persuaded moderate voters to back the agreement.

"Apparently the gig swung the vote by 2 per cent and brought it over the 70 per cent mark," he said.

"It was a very significant moment," recalls Tim Attwood on Trouble Songs.

"It symbolised everything the Good Friday Agreement was: orange and green, unionism and nationalism, coming together – it changed the dynamic."

The SDLP Belfast councillor maintains that alongside a series of pledges provided by then British prime minister Tony Blair, the U2-Ash gig "added six to seven per cent to the turnout – and that made the difference between unionism saying Yes and No."

Former Ulster Unionist director of communications David Kerr shares the same assessment of the gig as "pivotal".

"That concert pulled 80 to 100,000 votes into the ballot boxes – it got people to vote who normally never voted," he recalls in Trouble Songs.

"In the final analysis of that concert, it was a truly historic moment, certainly in the history of Northern Ireland. I have no doubt in my own mind that rock and roll drove the referendum vote over the magic 70 per cent mark."

But Quintin Oliver isn't entirely convinced.

"I don’t think individual events have huge significance in critical yes-no debates like this," he said.

"I think they’re part of the narrative, part of the framing, and we were certainly conscious that we needed the last week to be positive. I don’t think you can say, 'Well, I changed my mind as Bono sang', or 'because he got Trimble and Hume to shake hands' – I don’t think voters behave like that. I think it’s part of a context."

The Yes vote won the 1998 referendum with 71.1 per cent in favour.

:: Trouble Songs by Stuart Bailie is published by Bloomfield.