Many years ago when I was an Assembly representative for West Belfast RG and I were the tenants of room 316 in Parliament Buildings up at Stormont. If you’re looking up the steps at the front of the building it’s the room with two windows between the pillars on the right side. It’s a large office – bigger even that the one I ended up with in Leinster House.
It has a magnificent panoramic view of the Stormont estate and across the Belfast landscape to the Black Mountain, the ‘Murph and West Belfast.
In November 2010 I announced my intention to stand down from the Assembly and Westminster and to seek the Sinn Féin nomination to stand for the constituency of Louth in the upcoming February general election. It was a big step for me and for the party but it was a necessary part of our long term strategy to build Sinn Féin north and south. A few months later the good people of Louth elected me with a resounding mandate. And two years ago myself and Imelda Munster, were elected to the Dáil.
So I bade a fond fair well to Room 316 which then became a meeting room for the party leadership in the Assembly. Last summer, after two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations, the parties and governments moved out of Stormont Castle and up to Parliament Buildings. Room 316 came into its own again as Michelle, Declan, Carál, Conor et al moved back in, and it became the hub for our extended negotiating team. And not a shadowy figure amongst us.
In between the preparation for last weekend’s special Ard Fheis – comhghairdeas to everyone who made it an exhilarating event - Mary Lou and I have spent much of the last fortnight closeted with them. There have been countless meetings with the DUP leadership and also with the Irish and British governments. And the other parties. As with every negotiation every word is scrutinised, every commitment examined, legal advice is sought where necessary, especially around the production of legislation, and the implications of what is proposed or agreed is teased out. It’s a laborious process, which hasn’t changed much in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.
The Sinn Féin team is there seeking the restoration of the institutions. Ignore the usual begrudgery from the usual suspects who claim we are not serious. Most of the time I think the DUP are serious also. And then they step back and doubts return. Despite these obstacles the DUP and Sinn Féin have made progress. The focus now is on getting the final bits and pieces tied down and producing an agreement that is fair and balanced, based on equality and the rights of citizens, and which creates the opportunity for more progress in the time ahead. In a very real sense this is the last chance agreement.
So today, and yesterday and the day before and last week and the week before we have been closeted back in Room 316 with occasional visits for meetings in other rooms.
On Monday the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrived at Stormont House along with British Prime Minister Theresa May. The DUP didn’t meet the Taoiseach. Mary Lou, Conor, Declan and Michelle met both separately. It was an opportunity to remind them that both governments separately or together have the responsibility for resolving some of the outstanding issues.
Monday was the 29th anniversary of the murder by British government agents of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. The failure of the British to establish the international public inquiry promised at Weston Park was raised by Mary Lou. Next week will see the 30th anniversary of the killing by a British soldier of Aidan McAnespie at Aughnacloy. The Irish government appointed Garda deputy commissioner Eugene Crowley to investigate the killing. His report was handed over in April 1988 but the content has never been made public. The family are asking for it to be released now. Michelle told the Taoiseach this.
They also raised other legacy issues, Brexit, the recent proposals from the Boundary Commission and the terms for a referendum on Irish unity.
The British PMs visit was a clumsy intervention. A visit to Bombardier because there was a convenient recess at Westminster. A visit to the talks was an add-on. A distraction. Michelle insisted the Taoiseach needed to be there also. So he was.
This morning as I write these few words the sun is shining on the snow on the Belfast Hills. It makes for a grand sight. It’s not all serious. There are moments of levity and of black Belfast humour. Even the DUP like a laugh. Sometimes. Especially you know who.
Ted has as ever provided some of the best food you could hope to eat anywhere. One of these days he should publish a cook book of his favourite dishes – The Negotiators Cookbook - it would be a best seller.
In the meantime, we work to get this negotiation over the line. This is part of the process of change that commenced with the talks between myself and John Hume in 1986 and which led two decades ago to the Good Friday Agreement. If the principles and objectives of that Agreement and subsequent agreements are to be achieved then we have to work together, in partnership, to create the space in which all sections of our people can meet and moderate our differences. Ted reminded me that my first negotiation with the British Government was in 1972. Dáithí Ó Conaill and I negotiated a bi-lateral truce at that time. That’s forty-six years ago. Peace surely does come dropping slow. Then our focus was on the future. Same as now.
Is the DUP up for this? Time will tell. An agreement could be made this week. But, given DUP hesitancy, that is unlikely.
In the meantime, its back to Room 316 to read the latest draft of words on the issues still in contention.