Young people hold responsibility for peace deal’s future, ex-leaders tell pupils

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Young people in Northern Ireland hold the responsibility for ensuring the Good Friday Agreement endures into the future, Sir Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have said.

The former British and Irish premiers addressed a group of students at St Malachy’s College in north Belfast, as part of events marking the 25th anniversary of the peace deal.

Pupils from a range of schools across the north of the city attended the event and asked questions of the two leaders who helped to bring about the agreement in 1998, which largely ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Former prime minister Tony Blair told a group of young people that Northern Ireland has come from a dark place (Liam McBurney/PA)

“It is hard to know where you should go until you understand where you have been,” he said.

“I remember visiting Belfast and you would see barbed wire around the city, soldiers patrolling…

“This was a lockdown place with a lot of conflict.

“Today, there are massive problems to deal with but there are things you don’t have to deal with which are very important which people did have to deal with back then.

“We came from a very dark place.”

The former prime minister went on: “When I came to office, and Bertie came to office in 1997, the ceasefire had broken down. In the first few months of my premiership there were people being killed on the street here, terrorist attacks.

“It was still very ugly.

“But we had the opportunity to put in place things which were going to last.

“And then we spent another nine years putting the rest of it together.

“In the end it will only really work when people disregard what background you came from, what religion you are, and they think we are all part of the same society.”

He added: “That is why it really is down to you guys.

“But it is important to remember we have come a long way from where we were, because if we don’t remember that, and you don’t understand where you have been, it is harder to chart where you should go.”

Mr Ahern said the big challenge of the Good Friday Agreement is ensuring in lasts into the future.

“The day we signed it and the day we completed our work 25 years ago really was the start of the process and both of us spent years working on it and people have been doing it ever since,” he said.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Former Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern said the challenge for the next generation is ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement endures (Niall Carson/PA)

“The challenge is to build on it and the challenge is for all of you to take that on, to build a peaceful, prosperous, dynamic Northern Ireland, and to keep on building a better Northern Ireland.”

The former taoiseach added: “There are problems everywhere in the world, there are problems in every society, and Northern Ireland has a few unique ones because of the history of the Troubles, but I think the big thing is every day, every week, every month, every year, to keep on building on the Good Friday Agreement.

“To try to get a shared society to deal with the differences, and to try and build a better future.”

St Malachy’s College principal Paul McBride opened the event, introducing Sir Tony and Mr Ahern as “two of the key decision-makers” in creating the agreement.

Emphasising the importance of education, he said: “We are coming together to skill our young learners so that we can best meet the needs of our current and future workforce.”

The two former leaders met St Malachy’s head boy Diarmuid Hanna and discussed his plans for the future after he leaves school.

At the end they took time to shake hands with many of the young people who attended the event.

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