The day peace was forged brought a promise of redemption for us all. Clearly aware of the timing, those involved in the talks pushed beyond the midnight hour to a conclusion on 10 April 1998. It was a Good Friday, in every sense of the name.
The outcome was officially entitled ‘The Agreement,’ yet we hailed it as the Good Friday Agreement, basking in that ‘feel good’ designation and remarking on the contrast with the blood-soaked days that preceded it – Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday and more from a lengthy calendar of horror.
So we breathed a collective sigh of relief as dawn broke and cheered again when the Good Friday Agreement was sealed by popular vote throughout the island. However, we wavered when it was delivered for action because, by then, we had begun to forget what it was called.
The Irish Times began designating it the Belfast Agreement, as if its intrinsic value was vested in a place. This suggested that if you simply changed venue, you could change the outcome. But even the subsequent St Andrews Agreement failed to fire the popular imagination. It was mere housekeeping with the reminder that the Good Friday Agreement was still the ‘only show in town’.
The ‘Belfast Agreement’ certainly had its proponents and foremost among them were the opponents, uncomfortable with the positive connotations of a Good Friday Agreement.
The ‘Belfast Agreement’ was also upheld by pedantic commentators, insisting that similar accords are called after the place in which they are agreed – Treaty of Versailles etc. Yet what we had was not ‘site specific’ to Belfast, another treaty to be added to a catalogue of place-name accords. It was more than an armistice between belligerents or even a treaty between sovereign powers.
It was endorsed by the Irish, British and American governments, by the European Union and all its constituent members, as well as by other governments, religious leaders and people of goodwill throughout the entire world. However, our Good Friday Agreement was also an unprecedented accord between all the people of Ireland to forge a better future for all of us and to do this in peace. Together we hailed it as a new model of peace-making.
So most of us persisted doggedly with the Good Friday Agreement, even against the guiles of media style guides. In one memorable early purge, the Irish Times – ever- vigilant enforcer of the geographical designation – pursued it all the way into a report on the Presbyterian General Assembly with one naysayer remarking that the “only Belfast Agreement” he recognised, “was won for us on the cross by our Saviour”!
Fifteen years on, vigilance is still needed against those who would unpick what was won for us at the dawn of that Good Friday. Its promise is still denied by dissidents, including those who by stealth diminish the name we bestowed on the Agreement in our first acclamation.
They came after the name; let’s ensure they don’t succeed in coming after the terms.