‘Peacelines’: Britain, Ireland & Europe – The Making & Keeping of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement; 1973-2023.  

Borderlines – Remembering Sojourns in Ireland: 

The recent ‘post-Brexit’ negotiations over the issue of the trading relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have made me reflect on my two ‘professional’ visits to the island as an adult, in 1988 and 1990, a decade before the Belfast talks led to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As an eight-year-old, I had been to Dublin with my family in the mid-sixties, but recalled little of that experience, except that it must have been before 1966, as we climbed Nelson’s Monument in the city centre before the IRA blew it up to ‘commemorate’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. I had never visited Northern Ireland, however, though my father (pictured below) had begun his Baptist ministry in Bangor, County Down, after completing his training at Trinity College Dublin after the Second World War.

Dublin City Centre (O’Connell Street) in the early sixties.
Nelson’s ‘column’, with the GPO on the left.
After the IRA bombing
A Journey to Belfast, Londonderry & Corrymeela, June 1988:

The Official IRA laid down their weapons and hid them in 1969, instead forming a political party and standing successfully in elections in the Republic, though with little success in the North. But a Provisional IRA was formed by Republicans determined to continue what they called The Armed Struggle against the British State in the North, carrying out a number of brutal shootings and bombings on both sides of the border over the next decade. In the early eighties, as a historian and political economist, I was one of a number of researchers from Wales who met with a number of former Officials in London for an exchange of our respective findings about the contemporary economic landscapes of both Ireland and Wales. One such conclusion was that, with massive investment by American companies in Irish oil and gas extraction industries, there were now, in economic if not cultural terms, two ‘nations’ in Ireland, so that the older forms of Republicanism were therefore out of touch with the realities of Ireland in the 1980s. We were also told that although the Officials had decommissioned their weapons, they were still keeping them in reserve in case they were attacked by the Provos for their abandonment of traditional nationalist policies.

The Physical Map of the Island of Ireland above shows how little relevance the border has to its Geography.

Later that decade, in June 1988, while working for the Quakers in Selly Oak, Birmingham, I drove a group of students from Westhill College to Corrymeela, a retreat and reconciliation centre in the North. We drove by minibus to Belfast, being stopped by army blockades and visiting the Shankill and the Falls Road, witnessing the murals and the coloured curb stones. Political violence in Belfast had largely been confined to the confrontation lines where working-class unionist districts, such as the Shankill, and working-class nationalist areas, such as the Falls, Ardoyne and New Lodge, border directly on one another as shown on the map below:

After the Provisional IRA assassinated Lord Mountbatten on his boat off the Western coast of Ireland in 1979 (shown on the map below), the mainland bombing campaign went on with attacks on the Chelsea barracks, then the Hyde Park bombings, when eight people were killed and fifty-three injured. With hindsight, the emergence of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, as a political party in the early 1980s can be seen as one element in the rethinking of British policies. Yet throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were still periodic major incidents in various places across the province. After the Provisional IRA’s cease-fire in 1994, these were initiated by dissident Republican splinter groups. However, much of the continuing street violence throughout these decades was concentrated in the areas of Belfast where the population was mainly either predominantly Republican or Unionist, as shown on the map above.

After our tour of Belfast, I then drove along the beautiful, peaceful Antrim Coast to visit Derry/ Londonderry, with its wall proclaiming ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ (pictured below) and with its garrisons protected by barbed wire and soldiers on patrol with automatic rifles. Then we crossed the western border into Donegal, gazing upon its green fields and gentle hills. It reminded me of Phil Coulter’s sorrowful, autobiographical song, The Town I Loved So Well, which I had first heard a decade or more before on a jukebox in a Birmingham pub during breaks in my night shift as a temporary postal worker.

28.01.2007 Derry, Ireland Bloody Sunday 35th year’s commemoration.
At the end of the march, people gather at Free Derry Corner where the names of the victims are recalled;
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A page from a ‘reader’ on Ireland for English Language Learners (OUP, 2008)

‘Bloody Sunday’, 30th January 1972, followed the sending in of British troops in 1969 to protect the Catholic minority from Protestant violence and intimidation. To begin with, the majority of Catholics were welcoming towards the soldiers, but the Irish Republican Army was not. It began to shoot soldiers and policemen, and the Army responded by making intrusive house-to-house searches in Republican areas, locking up suspects without trial. This was called internment, and the Army frequently imprisoned the wrong people. Protest marches were organised by the Civil Rights Association, such as the one which led to ‘Bloody Sunday’. Twenty-six unarmed civil rights protesters were shot by British soldiers in the Bogside area of the City.

Catholic (nationalist) demonstrators in Derry after the killing of thirteen civil rights marchers on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 1972.

Thirteen died of their wounds on the day, including seven teenagers and another man died of his later the same year. Five of those wounded were shot in the back. Two other protesters were run down and injured by army trucks. At the time, the soldiers from the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment claimed that they had been fired upon first and that some of the demonstrators had guns. However, no weapons were ever found at, or near, the site. On Bloody Friday, 21st July 1972, the ‘Provisional IRA’ (PIRA) placed 22 bombs all over Belfast, in shops and cars on the streets, killing nine people and maiming 130. These were ordinary citizens, not policemen or soldiers, who had been targets in the past. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) also began a campaign of terror with bombs and bullets, killing many innocent people.

The UDA (Ulster Defence Association) marched through Belfast’s city centre in a massive show of strength, in the summer of 1972. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

‘Bloody Sunday’ is commemorated in U2’s well-known 1983 song, the lyrics of which, while condemning the Army, are not at all supportive of ‘the battle call’ of the IRA:

Broken bottles under children’s feet

Bodies strewn across the dead-end street

But I won’t heed the battle call

Puts my back up

Puts my back up against the wall

And the battle’s just begun

There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?

The trench is dug within our hearts

And mothers, children,

Brothers, sisters torn apart.

The final verse of U2’s song doesn’t pull any punches about the real solution to ‘the Troubles’. They don’t put their faith in ‘Victory for the IRA’ but in the Resurrection Day Victory of Christ:

The real battle’s just begun

To claim the victory Jesus won

On Sunday, Bloody Sunday …

Sunday Bloody Sunday (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Albeit reluctantly, British Prime Minister Edward Heath introduced internment without trial for suspected terrorists. He authorised the arrest and imprisonment in Long Kesh prison of 337 IRA suspects. In dawn raids, three thousand troops had found three-quarters of the people they were looking for, though even among these were many old or inactive former ‘official’ IRA members. Many of the active ‘Provo’ (Provisional IRA) leaders escaped south of the border. Protests came in from around the world. There was an immediate upsurge of violence, with twenty-one people killed in three days. Bombings and shooting simply increased in intensity. In the first eight weeks of 1972, forty-nine people were killed and more than 250 were seriously injured. Amid this already awful background, Bloody Sunday was an appalling day when Britain’s reputation around the world was damaged almost irrevocably. In Dublin, ministers reacted with fury and the British embassy was burned to the ground.

The tragic event in Londonderry made it easier for the ‘Provos’ to raise funds abroad, especially in the United States. This support emboldened the ‘Provos’, who hit back with a bomb attack on the Parachute Regiment’s Aldershot headquarters, killing seven people, none of them soldiers. The initial escalation of violence in ‘the province’ led to the imposition, by degrees, of direct rule by Whitehall. But all British political and administrative initiatives encountered perennial problems: one side or the other, and sometimes both, was unwilling to accept what was proposed. Ted Heath believed that he needed to persuade Dublin to drop its longstanding constitutional claim to the North, and, simultaneously, to persuade mainstream Unionists to work with moderate Nationalist politicians. His first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a new post made necessary by direct rule, William Whitelaw, met the Provisional IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams, for face-to-face talks, a desperate and risky gamble which, however, led nowhere. There was no compromise yet available that would bring about a ceasefire.

So, ignoring the Provos, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 proposed a power-sharing executive of six Unionists, four Nationalists (SDLP) and one non-sectarian Alliance Party member. It failed because the majority of Unionists would not accept an Irish dimension in the form of the proposed Council of Ireland, bringing together politicians from both sides of the border with powers over a limited range of issues. This was what nationalists demanded in return for Dublin renouncing its authority over Northern Ireland. Too many Unionists were implacably opposed to the deal, and the moderates were routed at the first 1974 election. While the British government’s approach became subtler with regard to unionist concerns, a formula that was acceptable to both sides remained elusive and was to do so for another quarter of a century. Reflecting on his power-sharing ‘project’, Heath concluded:

‘Ultimately it was the people of Northern Ireland who threw away the best chance of peace in the blood-stained history of the six counties’.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the British government apologised for the killings on the fortieth anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’, when the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a formal statement in the House of Commons.

My Birmingham colleague on our visit to Londonderry in 1988, Bill Campbell, a Presbyterian minister and the son of a ‘B Special’ police officer came from a small village on the shores of Lough Neagh north of Belfast. So while he visited his family home there, I was deputed to drive the students around Londonderry and the region around it, guided by Jerry Tyrrell from the Ulster Quaker Peace Education Project. He described himself as a ‘full-time Peace worker’ and a ‘part-time navigator’. I had already met him in Birmingham, where I was also running a Peace Education Project for the Quakers in the West Midlands. He was born in London but had come to live in Derry in 1972, just after Bloody Sunday, to work on holiday projects for groups of mixed Catholic and Protestant students at Corrymeela. It provided opportunities for them to meet and learn together during organised holidays, work camps and other activities. He had left this in April 1988 to take up the post of running the Peace Education Project at Magee College.

Edited by Sam Burnside, published by Holiday Projects West, Londonderry, 1988.

Jerry gave me a copy of a slim volume entitled Borderlines: A Collection of New Writing from the North West, containing prose and poems by members of the Writers’ Workshop based at Magee College, including some of his own poetry. The Workshop promoted and encouraged new writing in the North-west, and acted as a forum for a large number of local writers. In his preface, Frank McGuinness wrote of how …

… freedom is full of contradictions, arguments, the joy of diversity, the recognition and celebration of differences.

After reading the collection, I agreed with McGuiness that the collection contained that diversity and that it stood testimony to the writers’ experiences and histories, their fantasies and dreams. Its contributors came from both sides of the Derry-Donegal border we had driven over, and from both sides of the Foyle, a river of considerable beauty which, in its meandering journey from the Sperrins to the Atlantic, assumes on its path through Derry a socio-political importance in symbolising the differences within the City. However, in his introduction to the collection, Sam Burnside, an award-winning poet born in County Antrim, but living in Derry, wrote of how …

… the borders which give definition to the heart of this collection are not geographical, nor are they overtly social or political; while … embedded in time and place, they are concerned to explore emotional and moral states, and the barriers they articulate are … those internal to the individual, and no less detrimental to freedom for that.

If borders indicate actual lines of demarcation between places and … powers, they suggest also the possibility of those barriers being crossed, of change, of development, from one state to another. And a border, while it is the mark which distinguishes and maintains a division, is also the point at which the essence of real or assumed differences are made to reveal themselves; the point at which they may be forced to examine their own natures, for good or ill.

In the short story ‘Blitzed’ by Tessa Johnston, a native of Derry where she worked as a teacher, Kevin has moved, in a fictional future (in 1998), from Derry to Manchester, to escape from the troubles, but the report of a car-bombing by the Provisional IRA in Manchester brings back memories of his encounter with a soldier in Derry as a schoolboy, fifteen years old. On his way from his home in Donegal to the Grammar School in Derry, in the week before Christmas, he had been blinded by the snow so that he didn’t see the soldier on patrol until he collided with him:

Over the years Kevin had grown accustomed to being stopped regularly on his way to and from school; to being stopped, questioned and searched, but never until that day had he experienced real hostility, been aware of such hatred. Spread-eagled against the wall he had been viciously and thoroughly searched. His school-bag had been ripped from his back and its contents strewn on the pavement; then, triumphantly, the soldier held aloft his bible, taunting him:

“So, you’re a Christian, are you? You believe in all that rubbish? You wanna convert me? Wanna convert the heathen, Fenian scum? No?”

On and on he ranted and raved until Kevin wondered how much more of this treatment he could endure. Finally, his anger exhausted, he tossed the offending book into the gutter and in a last act of vandalism stamped heavily upon it with his sturdy Army boots, before turning up Bishop Street to continue his patrol.

With trembling hands Kevin began to gather up his scattered possessions. Then, like one sleep-walking, he continued his journey down Bishop Street. He had only gone a few steps when a shot rang out. Instinctively, he threw himself to the ground. Two more shots followed in quick succession, and then silence.

He struggled to his feet and there, not fifty yards away his tormentor lay spread-eagled in the snow. Rooted to the spot, Kevin viewed the soldier dispassionately. A child’s toy, he thought, that’s what he looks like. Motionless and quiet;

a broken toy …

Then the realisation dawned as he watched the ever-increasing pool of blood stain the new snow.”

What haunted Kevin from that day, however, was not so much this picture of the dead soldier, but the sense that he himself had crossed an internal border. He had been glad when the soldier was shot and died; he had been unable to come to terms with the knowledge that he could feel like that. He had been unable to forgive not just the young soldier, but – perhaps worse – himself. The shadow of that day would never leave him, even after his family moved to Manchester. This had worked for a while, he’d married and had a child, and he had coped. But in the instant of the TV news report all that had been wiped out. The ‘troubles’ had found him again. They knew no borders.

This, of course, was a piece of fiction, though it could quite easily have been a factual, eye-witness account. There were thousands of deaths in Northern Ireland like that of the soldier throughout the troubles and bombings even after the PIRA cease-fire (by the ‘Real IRA’), Thankfully, however, there was no renewal of the bombing campaigns on the mainland of Britain such as that of the 1970s, such as the bombing I had narrowly escaped in Birmingham. In 1974, the IRA had taken their campaign a stage further, by placing bombs in pubs in ‘mainland Britain’, killing many innocent teenagers.

The damaged front of the Tavern in the Town in Birmingham after the attack on November 21 1974.
Photograph: PA

On 21 November, they placed three bombs in the city centre of Birmingham. Two were in city centre pubs, and the third outside a bank along one of the main roads into the city, along which I and my friends travelled every Saturday night on our way to ‘Youthquake’ gatherings at St. Philip’s Cathedral. I remember returning from the city centre, where I had been eating in the burger bar next to ‘The Tavern in the Town’, where a bomb went off in the underground bar, the blast causing horrendous injuries besides the deaths. Getting off the bus at the terminus at the top of the avenue in Edgbaston where we lived, some four miles out of the city, I heard the blast. The bomb which had been placed on our bus route had failed to detonate. After that, almost every Saturday for the next four weeks before Christmas, we were called out for bomb alerts from the city-centre department store where I worked.

The memorial plaque to the 21 victims of the Birmingham pub bombs within the grounds of Saint Philip’s Cathedral

Our next-door neighbours were Irish, and I also remember the backlash they and many others faced in the large Birmingham Irish Community, which led to the wrongful conviction and sixteen-year imprisonment of ‘the Birmingham Six’. The twenty-one victims killed in the two explosions, eleven at ‘the Tavern in the Town’ would now be, like me, middle-aged or recently retired, with grown-up children and perhaps grandchildren of their own. Many of the hundreds who survived the blast suffered horrific, life-shattering injuries.

Maureen Roberts and Thomas Chaytor, both of whom were murdered in the Tavern in the Town bombing.

Yet the real bombers have never been charged, despite the accusation that the then leadership of the IRA, who later became ministers in the Stormont Government in Belfast, knew who they were, as did a Labour MP and journalist who wrote a book about the event. A decade ago, a petition was started by one of the victim’s families to get the case re-opened, so that they can be brought to justice. But by the Good Friday Agreement, they have so far found protection from arrest. But, writing from the perspective of the late eighties, Tessa Johnston’s short story could easily have been the real future for someone in Northern Ireland, and indeed it was that in Omagh in 1998, though not in Manchester, due to the Peace Process of the 1990s and the Good Friday Agreement in the real 1998.

An Easter ‘Pilgrimage’ to Dublin & Belfast, 1990:

My second visit to Ireland was over Easter 1990, shortly after I had moved to live and work in Hungary when I attended two conferences, the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference which was being held in Dublin that year, and then on to Belfast to complete an unfinished project for the West Midlands’ Quakers on ‘Conflict and Reconciliation’, a pack of materials we had trialled with Religious Education teachers in schools in Birmingham and Walsall through the Christian Education Movement (CEM). It was due to be published by them and sent to members throughout the UK, but first, we needed to share the ‘community’ materials with Religious Education teachers from both Catholic and State schools in the North and integrate the materials they had trialled with ours.

The cover of the Longman ‘Reader’ I was given at the 1990 Dublin Conference of IATEFL.

My travelling companions on the first part of the journey from Bristol to Dublin were a Quaker teacher-trainer in English Language teaching and two Hungarian primary teachers of English, one of whom worked as a mentor for the teacher-training college where I had already started work in Kecskemét in February 1990. On arriving in Rosslare from Fishguard, we got our passports out, thinking that there would be customs and border checks. My Hungarian colleagues expected to have to present theirs, as they did at every border, since Hungary had only just left the Warsaw Pact and Comecon, and it was to be another fourteen years before the newly-proclaimed republic was able to join the European Union. But we were all just waved through to join the ‘rocky road’ to Dublin.

I don’t remember much of the Conference but I do remember, with great affection, the streets of Dublin, the pubs and theatres and Trinity College, where my father had trained for the Baptist ministry, based at Spurgeon’s College nearby. That was when Eire was still a dominion of the British Commonwealth, so all my father had needed, even during the war when Ireland was neutral, was his National Registration card. He took us there as a family in the early sixties, and wanted to take us for a ride on the Dublin ‘tram’. However, he was disappointed as by that time it had disappeared, to be replaced by distinctive green double-deckers. In 1990, however, I caught a train from the station to Belfast on my own. The green and gold liveried Irish train crossed the border without stopping, the guard checking only our tickets.

Pub grub in Dublin.

Staying at Queen’s University in Belfast, we visited Lisburn (about eight miles west of the city centre) the next day, where we met the Mayor and then saw lessons at the Friends’ School, one of the few ‘integrated’ schools in the province at that time. We were also taken inside the bombed-out shell of Lisburn’s First Presbyterian Church where Rev. Gordon Gray was the minister, and one of the co-sponsors of our programme. It reminded me of the remains of the medieval Coventry Cathedral. His three-hundred-year-old church was bombed twice in the 1980s by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). It was in the process of being rebuilt and renovated after the second devastating attack, but the scars left by PIRA were plain to see, and Gordon Gray spoke calmly but passionately about the impact of the recent bombing. He had seen friends die through violence, but spiritual strength had helped him to continue on in his ministry.

After the Blitz: Coventry Cathedral, 14 November 1940. A witness to the ‘Troubles’ in Belfast has compared the destruction with that of the Church bombings of the 1980s in the Province, in a recent BBC Radio interview.

Then it was down to business. Elsewhere in the UK, Peace Education was not particularly welcomed by local authorities, though Birmingham had its own advisor. It was certainly not welcomed by the Thatcher government, who did their best to have it proscribed. Where it existed elsewhere, it was funded by Quaker charities and individual subscriptions, as was the case with my job, or subsumed into ‘World Studies’ or ‘Development Education’. But in Northern Ireland, it was supported by the UK government under the direct rule arrangements which existed before the Good Friday Agreement. It was called ‘Education for Mutual Understanding’ (EMU) and funding was provided for projects like those being run by the group of local teachers and church leaders, in both Catholic and Protestant state schools.

The ‘Peace Wall’ is shown on the left. It is still there, stretching over twenty miles through Belfast.

We had already hosted these teachers in Birmingham, where the Inter-cultural Conflict and Reconciliation Programme (ICCARP) was founded under the auspices of the CEM. They had visited Handsworth and met our community workers, a black social worker, of Caribbean heritage, and one white, a community policeman. Walking with them along the long main road through the district, I recognised their obvious unease as being similar to the way I had felt driving through the middle of Belfast and around the ‘peace line’ two years earlier. I remember asking the teachers about integrated education as a solution to overcoming the sectarian divide in education. The reply came that taking the churches out of secondary schools did not help bridge the divide since before young people could reach out across that divide, they had first to feel confident in their own faith traditions. This provided me with valuable insights which I later applied to my work in Hungary, where the role of religion in schools had been suppressed for so long and RE outlawed. In Handsworth, they visited a Church of England primary school where three-quarters of the children were from Punjabi Sikh families. The parents told us that they had chosen to send their children to that oversubscribed school because of its religious foundation; because they knew that their children would receive religious education and grow up understanding Christian values.

Having concluded our collective editing and proofreading of the respective community case-based materials from the two regions, we broke up, and I returned to Birmingham via the Larne crossing to Stranraer. Again, there were no checks of any kind at the ports, no heavy-handed use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act provisions which my USI (Union of Students of Ireland) student friends had to face in Liverpool on the way to NUS conferences at Blackpool from 1979 to 1980. The CEM released the pack in August 1991, in time for its inclusion in school plans for the new academic year. By that time I had returned to the UK to train RE teachers in Birmingham, and I led a CEM workshop for them to try out some of the cooperative activities. But our case study of Caribbean communities in Handsworth, based on the 1981 riots, was already out of date, so it was replaced with a case study on the stereotyping of South Asian Muslims in Derby.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985 & the Provos’ Ballot Box & Bullet Strategy:

Another preliminary element in the Peace Process was the belated interest successive Irish governments began to take in Northern Ireland during the same period. The fear that the disturbances in the North might spread south and destabilise their state lay behind the Dublin government’s decision to start talking directly to Downing Street from 1980 onwards. This led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which essentially represented a reiteration of British policy aims in the province, but now with an added all-Ireland dimension, which the Unionists continued to find difficult to accept.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 had essentially reiterated British policy aims in the province, but with an added all-Ireland dimension, which the Unionists found very difficult to accept. But on the Republican side, north and south of the border, it led to the emergence of an entirely new strategy, ballot box as well as bullet. This was followed by its realisation that ‘the war’ could not be won by purely paramilitary means which led it to enter secret talks with Dublin and Downing Street in the late eighties and early nineties in pursuit of a way into political participation. The British government’s recognition that if the ‘extremists’ on both sides could be brought into the search for a political solution then the mainstream political parties would follow suit, signified a complete reversal of its previous policy. Once the PIRA had accepted the need for a ceasefire, the remaining difficulty was to persuade mainstream unionists that the ex-paramilitaries could be trusted. Some unionists agreed to give up previous strategies, which in essence had consisted of trying to get back the power they had lost as a result of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. Their abandonment of these strategies sprang from their pragmatic realisation that only power-sharing with nationalists would guarantee them a stake in the future of the Province.

It took another ten years after the publication of Borderlines and our visit to Northern Ireland from Birmingham for another Agreement to be reached on Good Friday 1998 which ended the fighting in the Province, hopefully for good, though events in Belfast in the early 2000s showed that the sectarian cultural conflict between Unionists and Republicans was still deeply rooted in many communities, despite all the efforts made in the eighties and nineties in ‘Education for Mutual Education’ and the Christian Education Movement. These efforts were based on the principle that pupils needed to work on their own identities, both as individuals and members of communities, before they could develop the skills to span religious, cultural and ethnic divisions. The pack was published by CEM in 1991, and for a time proved very popular with schools in both Northern Ireland and the Midlands of England. One wonders if, in the province, following the Good Friday Agreement, the politicians took over and the real architects of peace were pushed into the background, depriving a new generation of any sense of ownership over the peace process and forcing them back onto the streets to express their identities in limited symbolism and violence.

The street violence persisted and intensified during the marching season in July when the protestant Orange Order held its traditional but often offensive or provocative parades near or through Catholic areas around Belfast.

The Hand of History, & The Shape of Things to Come:

Rioters, in this case, unionists, pelt police with stones after Orangemen were prevented from marching through nationalist Drumcree, near Portadown, in 1996.

In Northern Ireland in the eighties and nineties, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process, an optimism which found its expression in the stoical work of the ‘peace women’, the churches and voluntary organisations. Too often, perhaps, the peace process has been associated with its end product. This ‘product’ is remembered by one of Blair’s most significant but unprepared soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, which even his chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell and press officer, Alistair Campbell laughed at in private, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate, Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government.

He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA announced a further ceasefire, sensing a fresh opportunity. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and to encourage Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. So she concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street.

Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from its traditional support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists.

The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the platform for true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred, making it the deadliest single incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a strong regional and international outcry against ‘dissident’ Republicans and in favour of the Northern Ireland peace process. Prime Minister Tony Blair called the bombing an “appalling act of savagery and evil.” Queen Elizabeth expressed her sympathies to the victims’ families, while the Prince of Wales paid a visit to the town and spoke with the families of some of the victims. Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton also expressed their sympathies. Churches across Northern Ireland called for a national day of mourning. Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames said on BBC Radio that,

“From the Church’s point of view, all I am concerned about are not political arguments, not political niceties. I am concerned about the torment of ordinary people who don’t deserve this.”

Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the politicians from talking.

The Aftermath of the Omagh Bombing.

Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the moderate Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont. The impressive Parliament Buildings in Stormont, shown below, were built in 1921 to house the new Government of Northern Ireland after Partition, and since the Belfast Agreement, they have been the home to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its power-sharing executive.

Stormont, the home of Northern Ireland’s Assembly and Power-sharing Executive.

To almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. But the thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the Agreement hundreds more people are still alive today who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

US President Bill Clinton addressed a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant ‘peace broker’ in negotiations.

So, after long negotiations, and with the help of President Bill Clinton and his special envoy, ex-senator George Mitchell, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. This sought to establish a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, as well as acknowledge both British and Irish interests in the future of the province.

Devolution & Development in the British Isles within the EU:

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by an inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the new economy industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘stockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of its settlements were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided the whole island of Ireland through its ‘peace programme’. In 1993, the EU had already decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. By 1997, the relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under to the north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. They had, however, already reorganised local government in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh Assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama commented that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man).

The GFA, he argued, had changed all that, mainly due to the changed attitude of ‘the Ulster Irish’, epitomised in the apparent epiphany of Dr Ian Paisley and his unlikely new-found political relationship with Martin McGuinness. The Peace Process, at all levels, reaffirmed the role of Unionists in building the future of a new Northern Ireland. In Britain, certainly, and especially in England, they were no longer seen as ‘naysayers’.

Although Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 Referendum, it was taken out of membership with the rest of the UK, destabilising its trade relations with the Republic, despite a protocol agreed between the UK which kept the province within the European Single Market. Unionists refused to accept this, however, as it also regulates trade within the UK.

The fact that both territories were within the European Union enabled this to happen without friction, though this changed when the UK left the EU in 2020 and the Republic effectively became a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. But so far ‘the GFA’ has survived Brexit. Despite recurrent crises and accusations of bad faith, the peace survived more or less intact. But with the unionists rejecting the recent ‘Windsor framework’ between the current UK government and the EU Commission, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Agreement, and with the visit of US President Joe Biden, it remains to be seen whether it will develop into a long-term solution for a just and lasting peace.

Ursula Von der Leyen, EU Commission President, has negotiated the ‘Windsor framework’ with Risi Sunak, aimed at overcoming remaining post-Brexit obstacles to EU-UK-NI trade.
Conclusion – Crossing Inner Borders:

The drive from Birmingham or Bristol to Belfast is a long one, whichever route you take, but the inner, cultural journey is not so great. It is a worthwhile one, especially for someone who witnessed the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings at close hand. I could easily have been among those teenagers killed or seriously maimed that night, and the memory of it drives my determination to bring people together across cultural divides and borders. Religious traditions, be they Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Sikh or Muslim are there for us to reach out from, in faith, not for us to retreat into, in fear. It is worth remembering Sam Burnside’s comment that the most divisive borders are those which we draw within ourselves. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again after forty years of borders being brought down and/or crossed with ease.

A Quaker Poster in 1999.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: