Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

A decade on, how is the deal?

The Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement, the accord - it has many names. But as its 10th anniversary approaches, has the war of words abated? BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport reports.

The Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the Siege of Derry just before that and the Easter Rising of 1916: Northern Ireland's politics and culture is studded with hotly contested events and anniversaries.

The Good Friday Agreement
Ten years on... preparing to mark a special anniversary
Now add to that list the deal which followed the talks in Stormont's Castle Buildings a decade ago.

Known throughout the world as the Good Friday Agreement, the deal's ecclesiastical anniversary, if that's what it can be termed, falls in March.

However, unionists are dubious about elevating the Agreement to some kind of political resurrection, so they reject that religious description.

They call it the Belfast Agreement and the deal's chronological anniversary falls on 10 April.

Turning to the official document distributed to voters ahead of the subsequent referendum provides little assistance on this score - it is simply entitled "the Agreement".

Of course, Northern Ireland would not be, well, the North of Ireland without a dispute over words.

But behind this disagreement over terminology lie fundamental political divisions.

Whilst David Trimble's Ulster Unionists spent the talks inside Castle Buildings, Ian Paisley's DUP were famously on the outside.

As negotiators worked through the night, Ian Paisley led a crowd of protestors to Lord Carson's statue on the Stormont estate to oppose their work.


Later, the DUP leader held a rumbustious news conference in the portable building outside the talks venue.

He denounced the compromises inherent in the deal, and for his troubles drew invective from loyalist politicians who portrayed him as a "grand old Duke of York" who had led Protestants up hills and down dales for too many years.

During the decade that followed, the terms "anti-Agreement" and "pro-Agreement" became commonplace shorthand for the dividing line within unionism.

The Lagan Valley MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, then an Ulster Unionist, began his journey between these two positions when he drove away from Castle Buildings before the Agreement was unveiled, unhappy about the paramilitary prisoner releases contained in the deal.

By the time he completed his travels, joining the DUP in 2004 , the anti-Agreement camp were dominating unionist thinking.

When the DUP negotiated the St Andrew's Agreement in Scotland in 2006, some party insiders quipped that it had a much more Ulster-Scots twang to it than the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP line is that they replaced the 1998 accord with a far better alternative.

A decade on, and devolution is a reality at Stormont
However, their critics retort that the DUP are latecomers, building on the pioneering work of David Trimble and accepting the same north-south, British-Irish architecture as the former UUP leader.

The truth lies somewhere in between. The DUP did not sign off on a deal until the IRA disarmed and Sinn Fein accepted the police, both bits of unfinished business which helped to undermine the Good Friday accord.

That said, the current Stormont system rests on both unionists and nationalists holding vetoes and a mandatory coalition including all the major parties - precisely the model negotiated at Castle Buildings.

The contested nature of this anniversary has been illustrated by the DUP's decision not to accept an invitation to the commemoration of the Agreement in April.

Arranged by the US-Ireland Alliance, it will be attended by the former US President, Bill Clinton.

Ian Paisley's absence is perhaps no surprise given that, back in 1998, he advised his supporters to "lock up all the women" when Bill Clinton thought about visiting Northern Ireland.

In his memoirs, the former president expressed his opinion that those whose hands the DUP leader refused to shake "got the better of the deal".

Either way, the DUP will focus on the first anniversary of the restoration of devolution in May, whilst the other parties will celebrate 10 years of the Good Friday Agreement this spring.

Which of these dates anyone might remember in 300 years' time is another question.

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