It’s been a strangely unsettling experience watching, listening and reading the plethora of media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement over the last couple of weeks.

Unsettling how?

Well, despite my own very positive memories of 1998 as a very uplifting time of hope, we are now fed a daily diet of negativity by some who wish to portray the Agreement as a failure. Indeed, there are even those who seek to blame the Agreement for all our problems.

Yes, we are at a point in 2023 where we have issues and need a reset; but ignore the naysayers and unravellers, the Good Friday, Belfast Agreement was and remains a remarkable achievement and a success of its time and has proved to be the basis for the progress we have made over a quarter of a century.

We are all, especially our young people, in a far better place.

It’s achievement was best summed up at the end of the RTE documentary last week by American Senator George Mitchell who had chaired the talks in 1998.

“It’s in the numbers,” says the Senator today. “In the 25 years preceding the Agreement 3,500 people were killed through violence in Northern Ireland and an estimated 50,000 were injured. In the 25 years since the Agreement, the total number of violent deaths is about 145.”

In a nutshell, whatever other issues there are, the fact is that the Agreement has saved thousands of lives.

As we debate the merits of the political arrangements, the flaws of what was in the Agreement or not in it, the ongoing failure to build on the opportunity it provided and all other considerations, let us never lose sight of the fact that there are literally thousands of people alive today who could be in their graves as a result of violence if it had continued.

It's grotesque to label that a failure.

When that violence first broke out in the late 1960s, I was still in my teens. By the time the ceasefires happened, I was in my 40s so most of those important stages of my life were spent to the backdrop of a society which sank further into the abyss, where people of all sides were dreadfully hurt and everyone across the board was worn down by it all.

The book 'Lost Lives' records factually the cases of all the people who died, human stories behind the statistics of a horrible time.

Thousands more still suffer with physical and mental injuries, and people of all ages were forced to try to live a normal life in an abnormal society.

Even at the end of World War One there was difficulty getting a peace treaty between Allies and the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau said: “It is far easier to make war than to make peace.”

So, it could be argued that the protagonists in our own decades-long conflict could have stayed in their silos. There were plenty even in their own side who didn’t want compromise. It took something extraordinary to break that cycle.

For the first time, political parties on all sides negotiated with Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, all alongside the British and Irish Governments, facilitated by the Americans.

It wasn’t easy; indeed, it took real leadership from courageous people to come to an arrangement with their enemies. As John Paul Lederach said: “To speak well and to listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotion and deep conflict.”

But they did it, and everyone had to accept difficult compromises.

I was also interested this week in a clip of a comment made by loyalist leader, David Ervine following the Agreement.

“The deal is done,” he said. “An honourable agreement created by honourable and decent people. Now it transfers to the will of the people. Don’t blame the politicians. If the people want peace, here’s the opportunity.”

He was ostensibly referring to the referendum which did vote massively, 71 per cent, in favour of the deal. But he could well have been referring to the ensuing years when people had the opportunity to build a real peace, not just the absence of violence, but a process of learning to live together.

Lederach also said: “Reconciliation is not to quickly forgive and forget, as if it never happened or we somehow are gifted with a form of amnesia. Reconciliation requires that we remember and change, but with honesty about our experience and curiosity about the humanness of the other whom we fear.”

You know, despite the negativity we often hear in polemic media debate, many people on the ground are moving forward together and the increase in the middle ground is an indication of that.

People still yearn for peace and a fair and equal society, not the mistrust or hatred of “themuns” as propagated by the doom mongers who want their world view to dominate.

For them, instead of filling the space created by the Agreement by moving forward, there is an increasing unpicking of progress.

The scenes of balaclava-clad hooded thugs on the streets of Derry, with children as young as ten apparently throwing petrol bombs at the police is an alarm call, as is the continuing presence of violent loyalists in the east.

It's a cliché, but there really is much work to be done.

In that respect, there was an intriguing discussion on Sunday Sequence, involving Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, two men with vast experience in a conflicted society who undertook the work of the Consultative Group on the Past. They were joined by Rev. John Dunlop, the former Presbyterian Moderator.

They talked about the compromise of the Agreement being unravelled, with people weaponising past trauma. And Bradley said we are in a “seminal moment” when we need to look to the future.

He said there was no methodology for talking about the future here and supported former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson’s idea to set up such a mechanism.

If I understood him correctly, Bradley suggested separating the day-to-day politics whereby people could get on with dealing with all our crisis issues in health, education etc., while dealing with the constitutional issue separately.

We need to find an agreed Ireland, whatever that means, and Bradley even said he’d love to understand and argue the Unionist case so that they could then feel confident in fighting their corner and feel part of the future.

Nationalists and Catholics, he said, need to admit the many wrongs they had done to the Unionist people on this island.

It was a remarkable act of reaching out by Denis Bradley.

He referenced Peter Robinson a few times, and in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph this week in which he said the DUP should have talked to Sinn Fein earlier, that Martin McGuinness had recanted from his IRA past by his subsequent involvement at Stormont and Robinson said that replacing the RUC with the PSNI has worked.

The courage shown by various leaders in 1998 ended violence for the most part; such leadership is sadly lacking today. But there are signs from people such as Denis Bradley and Peter Robinson that there are still people who can think out of the box.

We cannot, must not, allow those pushing a divisive old narrative take us back to the days before 1998. However imperfect things are now, never forget how dark and ugly those days were.