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The Negotiators: Lessons From Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement

By Kelley Griffin | April 12, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Daly
Ahern

Imagine having more than eight centuries of violence and discord between factions sitting at a negotiating table—and you are one of the people trying to get them to agree.

That’s what former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern faced when he and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair led the work on what became known as the Good Friday Agreement, reached on April 10, 1998, which was Good Friday that year.

“The magic, I suppose, is to try to keep that sense of understanding that this is difficult for everybody,” Ahern told NCSL Executive Director Tim Storey during his podcast, “The Inside Storey.”

You have to convince people, ‘Well, listen, there must be another way.’ —Bertie Ahern, former Irish prime minister

“We all give a bit and take a bit,” Ahern said, “because in the end of negotiations, if there’s a loser and someone loses badly, then it doesn’t work. You almost have to get to a stage that everybody is a winner so that the compromises balance each other as best you can.”

Facing Long Odds

The agreement, involving representatives of Ireland, various political parties of Northern Ireland, and the British government, determined that Northern Ireland should be governed as a British territory.

Fighting in Northern Ireland deeply intensified in 1968, with bombings and bloodshed for another 30 years among the warring factions. Mark Daly, the current president of the Irish Senate, noted on the podcast that Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the Democratic Unionist Party, loyalists who supported remaining a part of United Kingdom, were so at odds they would not even sit in the same room during the negotiations.

Daly was not yet in government when the agreement was signed, but he said he recently learned of a tactic that impressed him. He said that to ensure no ideas were rejected out of hand because one party wouldn’t accept something another party put forward, they used “angel documents”: Ideas were for discussion were typed out on paper with no identification and left on tables for the negotiators to review.

“So there was a lot of very imaginative thinking in the negotiations,” Daly said.

Building Trust

Ahern said he learned during the negotiations that the parties involved must believe the existing state of affairs is untenable. “If people believe that the status quo is fine and that going on killing people is fine, then there’s not much room for negotiation,” he said.

In addition, everyone must believe they can move on their stances and still serve their people.

“You have to convince people, ‘Well, listen, there must be another way,’” Ahern said. “‘People are still being killed. People are still being blown up. Property has been damaged. The economy is wrecked, no tourists, no investment.’”

Finally, the parties at the table must trust and understand each other, which Ahern described as a huge hurdle. He and Blair, along with retired U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who brokered the talks, constantly worked toward that end. Ahern recalled that Mitchell said then it was “800 bad days to get one good day” out of the peace process.

“And I think looking back on it, we managed to do that—with great difficulty, may I add,” he said. “But 25 years on, more or less, what we negotiated is still the way it is.”

The full interview, including a discussion of current U.S.-Ireland relations and the role of state legislatures, can be found here.

Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor at NCSL.

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