Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Breaking the reporting taboos

Former BBC NI political correspondent Mark Simpson remembers the political earthquake that saw him smiling with Stormont signatories.

As a rule, journalists should never pose for pictures with politicians, especially in Belfast, the international capital of political sensitivity.

Mark Simpson, left of General John de Chastelain

Yet, when political earthquakes occur, rules tend to get broken.

And let's not forget - the Good Friday Agreement did indeed mark a seismic shift in the Northern Ireland landscape.

Twenty-five years of deadlock was broken, and a new type of politics began.

It wasn't the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

However, that's not the reason why before the Agreement was signed I smiled at the camera along with my media colleagues in the company of British and Irish government ministers and the American talks chairman George Mitchell.

As I poked my head in between the red coat of BBC Ireland correspondent Denis Murray and the right shoulder of arms decommissioning chief General John de Chastelain, I wasn't celebrating, I was contemplating.

How on earth could Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams work together when they still weren't on speaking terms?

Was the IRA really going to destroy its weapons?

And could I get a leaked copy of the deal before it was published?

My contribution was to break the news of the last-minute walkout from the talks by Jeffrey Donaldson.

My BBC colleague, Stephen Grimason, had already thought of the last question, and somehow later managed to sneak one out of Stormont before anyone else.

Breaking news

My contribution was to break the news of the last-minute walkout from the talks by Jeffrey Donaldson, who at the time was one of Trimble's right-hand men.

Donaldson phoned me late in the afternoon.

When I saw his mobile number pop up on my phone, I assumed he was inside Stormont with Trimble preparing for the news conference in front of the world's Press.

"Hello Mark."

"Hello Jeffrey. I take it the deal's done?"

"Well, I'm on my way back home to Lisburn..."

The rest is history.

But back to that photograph - why did the media stand shoulder to shoulder with Mitchell, de Chastelain, Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and the rest?

For many of us, it was an end-of-term photograph.

Behind the cameras

We spent two years of our lives at Stormont - week in, week out, covering all the walk-ins and the walk-outs, from the day the negotiations began back on 10 June 1996.

It was a two-year journalistic marathon.

We weren't made to feel welcome - probably because we weren't.

During the middle of it all, my first child was born, so I'm told.

The Press facilities were hopeless.

Three cold portable offices and a machine supplying lukewarm coffee.

We weren't made to feel welcome - probably because we weren't.

Mo Mowlam did her best to cheer us up.

She came to see us for a chat sometimes, put her feet up on the table, threw off her wig and told us all to stop moaning about the media facilities.

When we turned the microphones on, she was the queen of the sound-bite.

The loyalist politician David Ervine was the king. Sadly both of them are now dead.

One of the points that is often missed when looking back at the Good Friday Agreement is that it shouldn't really have happened on a Friday at all.

Ian Paisley protesting outside Stormont
Ian Paisley protesting outside Stormont, the night before the deal

The deadline was the day before.

One of the most dramatic moments came during the final night when the DUP leader Ian Paisley led a large group of angry supporters into the grounds of Stormont to mount a protest.

They bumped into a crowd of loyalists who were backing the talks.

It became very ugly.

Glimpses of the future

Little did I realise then that one day Paisley, the grim-faced outsider, would be back at Stormont as a smiling first minister.

Mind you, not long after Good Friday, I did get a first hint.

During a long lunch with a senior member of the party, I asked him if he ever thought the DUP could do a deal with Sinn Fein.

He gave a long, complicated answer but his final line stuck in my mind.

"Ultimately, if you go into politics, you want to to get into power."

It was then I knew that the Good Friday Agreement might not be the last political earthquake to hit Northern Ireland.

I wish I had brought a camera.

Mark Simpson is now the BBC's North of England correspondent



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