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Preparing the Peace

Date: 10 April 2023

Author: Emma Lawthers

Reflecting on Hillsborough Castle’s political role, 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement

2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Hillsborough Castle played a historic role in Northern Irish peace negotiations.

Here, Research and Interpretation Producer Emma Lawthers explores the political history of this fascinating house.

Header image: The press conference to announce the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, 05 February 2010. Photo by Julien Behal - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Facsimile of Bust of Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire.

A Political House

Hillsborough Castle has been a political house ever since it was built - I say house, rather than building, as its political credentials lie in its residents past and present, who over the centuries have held significant political roles.

Wills Hill, who built the house, was the first Secretary of State for the American Colonies. In this capacity in 1771, he wined and dined U.S. founding father, Benjamin Franklin, at the castle.

The house remained in the ownership of the politically-active Hill family until they sold it to the British government in 1925, making it the home of the Governor of Northern Ireland, a new role created in the wake of the Partition of Ireland. In 1973, the role was abolished – Lord Grey, the last Governor, moved out, and William Whitelaw, the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland moved in. It was in this role as the home of the Secretary of State, that Hillsborough Castle became a venue for talks during the NI peace process.

Image: Bust of Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire. © Historic Royal Palaces

Hillsborough Castle’s Role in the Northern Irish Peace Process

While the ultimate breakthrough moment in the Good Friday Agreement (officially Belfast Agreement), would come at Castle Buildings at Stormont on the 10 April 1998, some of the preparatory work took place at Hillsborough Castle. The castle was at that time home to Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, and the base used by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his staff during the negotiations.

The Agreement restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of power-sharing, but this was only the start. Commitments were made to deal with many issues, including police reform, civil and political rights, paramilitary disarmament, and prisoner release. Some of these matters became serious sticking points in the peace process and were discussed at length at Hillsborough Castle in the years that followed.

Image: British Prime Minister Tony Blair making his famous ‘hand of history’ statement in the State Entrance of Hillsborough Castle, 7 April 1998. JOHN GILES / PA Archive / PA Images

British Prime Minister Tony Blair making his famous ‘hand of history’ statement in the State Entrance of Hillsborough Castle, 7 April 1998.

Room for Everyone: The Throne Room

The largest and grandest of Hillsborough Castle’s State Apartments is its Throne Room. Originally a ballroom, its size and grandeur made it the ideal setting for some of the most public political moments in the castle’s history.

In October 2003, the international press gathered in the Throne Room to hear Canadian General, John de Chastelain, briefly state that he had witnessed the destruction of IRA weapons. Exhausted and sworn to secrecy, the General refused to elaborate on what he had seen – what should have been a historic moment for Northern Ireland fell flat. Years later, Tony Blair paid tribute to de Chastelain’s refusal to compromise his independence but wrote that the only lasting historic significance of the event was that it should be compulsory viewing for all students of press conferences.

In February 2010, a press conference was held in the Throne Room to announce the Hillsborough Castle Agreement which saw the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland – it was hailed as the final piece in the devolution jigsaw that started with the Good Friday Agreement.

But these political set pieces were the outcome of lengthy background talks that the public did not see – the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, for example, was the result of over a hundred hours of discussions spread across the castle’s many rooms as parties broke off to consider the deal. It was the longest continuous talks during the entire peace process.

The Smallest Room: Lady Grey’s Study

The smallest room in Hillsborough Castle is now being used to tell the story of these private, behind the scenes meetings that helped pave the way to peace. Lady Grey’s Study, named after Lady Esmé Grey, the wife of the last Governor of Northern Ireland, is not really a study, but a small sitting room, furnished with a sofa and a couple of comfortable armchairs. Just as the Throne Room is large enough to accommodate dozens of journalists and onlookers, Lady Grey’s Study is small enough to make one-to-one conversations feel private.

For this reason, Lady Grey's Study was often used for talks in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and those that followed it, which dealt with the difficult issues of decommissioning and devolution of policing and justice. In small bilateral meetings away from the spotlight, views were explained, questions were asked, and compromises were made.

Even when these meetings were frustrating or unsuccessful, they helped to slowly build personal relationships between the key players of the peace process. The importance of this should not be underestimated – trust, as one of the Irish delegates to the talks commented, is the currency of negotiation.

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

A series of portraits hung in a richly decorated small room - Preparing the Peace in Lady Grey's Study at Hillsborough Castle

'Preparing the Piece': The Art of History

Hanging on the walls of Lady Grey’s Study today is an art hang called Preparing the Peace, made up almost entirely of preparatory pieces to reflect Hillsborough Castle’s role as a location for talks that helped pave the way to agreement. The subjects of these sketches, photographs and sculpture are all key players in the Northern Ireland peace process. Looking at them today, 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is striking how many of these individuals are no longer with us.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe these preparatory artworks is reminiscent of the words and phrases used by journalists reporting on the NI peace talks – fragmentary, inconclusive, on-going. And just like some of the talks, in some cases the content and feel of the preparatory piece is very different from the end result, the finished piece presented to the public. Like the Good Friday Agreement these artworks were never intended to be the finished piece – they are part of the process, a framework for progress. 

Emma Lawthers
Research and Interpretation Producer
Historic Royal Palaces

Watch: Preparing the Peace at Hillsborough Castle

Plan Your Visit

Wide shot of Lady Grey's Study featuring the Preparing the Peace art work install at Hillsborough Castle in 2023.

Lady Grey's Study and Preparing the Peace

A collection of preparatory sketches of official portraits which now hang in institutions all over the world are displayed together in Lady Grey's Study.

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