As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) nears on April 10, two of its main architects, former President Bill Clinton and former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, told a New York audience on Monday evening, April 3, that even though the deal isn’t perfect and more work needs to be done, it’s been remarkably endurable and has saved a countless number of lives

Clinton and Adams delivered speeches during a GFA commemorative event at The Cooper Union in Manhattan organized by seven Irish American organizations and coordinated by Irish American attorney and long-time civil rights activist Marty Glennon.

“I remember the troubles in the North of Ireland for most of the latter half of the 20th century…I remember hunger strikes, protests at the British Consulate and mock funerals here in New York City. What I remember most was the sense of despair and people saying that a united Ireland is nothing but a dream,” Glennon said. 

“Tonight we look back and remember those great individuals who challenged the opinion that peace and prosperity in Ireland was impossible.” 

George Mitchell, the former US senator who was tapped by Clinton to serve as special envoy to the North and led the talks that resulted in the GFA, spoke via video.  

Clinton and Adams entered Cooper Union’s Great Hall together to a standing ovation from the several hundred guests in attendance. Adams spoke first for about 20 minutes, prior to Clinton receiving a peace award from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and then delivering his remarks.

Adams, who handed the Sinn Féin leadership reins to Mary Lou McDonald in February of 2018, dedicated his speech to the recently deceased Rita O’Hare, the longtime party stalwart who led its efforts in America for more than 20 years.

Adams outlined a history of The Troubles –  “no one from my community went to war. The war came to us,” he said – and said that the GFA has paid real dividends. 

“Despite the ups and downs over the last 25 years, we are in a much better place today than we were during the decades of conflict,” said Adams. “And Irish America helped to bring peace to Ireland.” 

He added: “Through the hard work of many Irish American organizations and individuals, the cause of Ireland and the peace in Ireland became an important, pivotal political issue here in the USA.” 

Clinton overruled his State Department and the British government in January of 1994 to issue the first-ever US visa for Adams. The 48-hour visa was a “critical initiative” in the peace process, the Sinn Féin leader said. 

“Up to this point, the British position was that the North was an internal matter for the British government. Bill Clinton changed that,” Adams added. 

November 30, 1995: President Bill Clinton greets Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in West Belfast. (Public Domain / Clinton Presidential Library)

November 30, 1995: President Bill Clinton greets Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in West Belfast. (Public Domain / Clinton Presidential Library)

Calling the GFA “the most important political agreement of our time in Ireland,” Adams demanded its full implementation. Devolved government in the North has been stalled because the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to take its seats at Stormont over the issue of a post-Brexit Irish border. 

“This is totally and absolutely unacceptable. The results of the last elections for the Assembly need to be respected,” Adams said. That election, in May of last year, saw Sinn Féin become the North’s largest party

“If the DUP remain intransigent, then the two governments should move ahead using the GFA’s all-Ireland mechanisms. We cannot have a return to direct rule from London. It is not an option.” 

Adams said that the Irish government needs to fast-track plans for a referendum on unity, including the creation of a citizens’ assembly which could help outline what a united Ireland could look like. 

“For the first time in our history, there’s a peaceful way to end the union with England. And to build our own future. No one should be allowed to take that right away from us,” Adams said.

“Despite the current difficulties, the future looks bright. What is needed is the full implementation of the GFA. The great and the good used to say peace was not possible…some now say that unity is not possible. Unity is now a doable project.” 

Speaking in New York:
If the DUP remain intransigent the 2 govt should move ahead using the GFA all-Ireland mechanisms.
British direct rule is not an option.
The govts need to implement thE crucial elements of the GFA that are still not implemented, including a Bill of Rights.

— Gerry Adams (@GerryAdamsSF) April 3, 2023

In his remarks, Clinton urged the re-establishment of devolved government in the North and the acceptance of the new Windsor Framework which deals with the Brexit border issue.

“Windsor is about as good as anybody can get,” he said. 

The fractured state of the world makes peace harder to achieve no matter where there are problems, the 42nd president said. “Now increasingly in the modern world all over, other democracies, not the least in America, more and more people see politics as sort of a performance art, an exercise in triggering identity reactions, and it’s a lot easier than getting something done,” he offered. 

“Making people mad is easier than making progress together. I just want to see the Irish peace flourish. I want to see what was enshrined 25 years ago to make a difference today.” 

In November 1995, Clinton became the first sitting US president to visit Northern Ireland. He remembered sensing an overwhelming desire for peace, particularly from young people. 

“You could just feel it…they expected grown-ups to act like grown-ups and figure out what the heck to do so they could stop shooting each other and start living together and plan a future for their kids,” he said. “I think the Irish people deserve a lot of credit.” 

Clinton humorously recalled talking to his daughter Chelsea about her college thesis in which she researched the history of Irish American politics, ending with what happened when her father was president. When he asked Chelsea how she thought he performed on Irish issues, she told him that he probably first got involved “because you wanted the Irish vote in New York,” a reference to Clinton’s appearance at the 1992 Irish presidential forum founded by attorney and former member of the New York State Assembly John Dearie. 

But then, she added, “I also think you knew a lot about it and cared a lot about it, and the more you stayed the more you cared and the harder you worked…you did okay.” 

November 30, 1995: US President Bill Clinton with head of the SDLP John Hume in Derry. (Public Domain / Clinton Presidential Library)

November 30, 1995: US President Bill Clinton with head of the SDLP John Hume in Derry. (Public Domain / Clinton Presidential Library)

Clinton was involved in many peace processes during his two terms in the White House, and none of them were simple he said. 

“You may see its flaws and imperfections,” he said of the GFA. “You have no idea unless you’ve looked at all these other things, just how hard it is, just how improbable it was. 

“I want you to think about this when you leave – celebrate the Good Friday Agreement, thank God that it lasted 25 years, pray to God that it will last 25 more, but that it doesn’t take 25 more to have a workable, political, democratic, peaceful, constructive society.” 

After he finished speaking, Clinton chatted with and posed for some photos with members of the audience. After a short break, the night resumed with a panel discussion on the Irish peace process moderated by Massachusetts Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the Friends of Ireland group in Congress. 

*This column first appeared in the April 5 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.