Architects of Good Friday Agreement deserve huge praise

The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed on this day 25 years ago, could never have permanently transformed our divided society but was still a momentous turning point in our shared history.

Those who lived through the appalling years which preceded it can only reflect on what might have been achieved, and how many thousands of lives could have been saved, if the Sunningdale accord from a quarter of a century earlier had been allowed to be fully implemented.

It facilitated the first power-sharing Stormont executive including members of the Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance parties,, with a limited consultative role for Dublin in what was known as the Council of Ireland.

The DUP and some loyalist extremists bluntly rejected an arrangement which involved non-unionists in any form, even though Sinn Féin was not at that stage participating in northern elections, and seemed to believe that an overall unionist majority could be indefinitely maintained.

They brought down the fledgling project in 1974 through a campaign of blatant intimidation, helped by escalating loyalist and republican violence, and the result was decades of despair, bloodshed and hopelessness for all sections of the community.

It always needs to be stressed that every killing during the Troubles, regardless of the identity of the victim, was evil, cruel and generated only bitterness and grief on an enormous and long term scale.

There was huge anticipation when our politicians finally gathered at Castle Buildings in 1998 for final negotiations with the strong support of the Irish, British and crucially the US and EU administrations.

Significant sacrifices were essential on all sides, with the new realities centring on partnership at all levels, permanent ceasefires, decommissioning, prisoner releases, revised policing structures and a general understanding that the mistakes of the past could never be repeated.

Our constitutional future will ultimately depend on the ballot box, as we come to terms with an emerging group of minorities from the nationalist, unionist and unaligned sectors, but it must be recognised that both the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement have allowed massive progress to be made on all fronts.

While there can only be regret that we do not have a functioning Stormont executive for the time being, we are still in an entirely more positive set of circumstances than was the case in 1998. We should be hugely grateful to all those who at major risk across the board made it possible.