2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Northern Ireland Ceasefires. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that the failure at the end of 2013 of special envoy Richard Haass to secure agreement among the North’s political parties on some outstanding issues has generated little reaction. Despite evidence of a growing sense of anger frustration and alienation among some younger working class loyalists, there is certainly no threat of a resumption of the grim cycle of violence that scarred the North for a generation before 1994.

But first things first. On 22 November last Fr Alec Reid died. A Redemptorist priest, Fr Reid will forever be remembered in one of the iconic photographs of the “Troubles,” as he administered the last rites to two British army corporals, murdered by the Provisionals in 1988 after blundering into a republican funeral. It was a grim time, only months after the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, with the two communities seemingly totally polarised and no apparent prospect of political initiative to end the violence.

However, only a short time later Fr Reid was the major facilitator in setting up what became known as the Hume-Adams dialogue, meetings between Gerry Adams and John Hume, which played a vital part in launching the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Over the years he remained actively involved in the peace process, facilitating dialogue and contacts. It was Fr Reid who, together with Methodist Minister the Rev. Harold Good, announced in September 2005 that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons. He also became involved in attempts to resolve the conflict in the Basque country. His singular contribution to the achievement of peace in the North cannot be overstated.

Serendipity. The release of the British and Irish state papers from thirty years ago at the end of 2013 provides a certain analogy with Fr Reid and “the darkest hour.” The documents just released, which merit detailed and careful analysis, cover the years in the wake of the Falklands’ War, and portray fairly frosty relations between the Irish and British governments.

From the papers, the prospects for political progress seemed bleak. Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald’s attempts to find a political way forward with the initiative of the New Ireland Forum met with the firm rebuff of Thatcher’s famous “ Out, Out, Out” press conference in November 1984. Speaking less than six weeks after the IRA attempt to assassinate her in the Brighton Bombing, she dismissed the three suggestions of the Forum: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state or joint British/Irish authority. The British seemed also to have considered at the time repartition of Northern Ireland, though how seriously this was taken other than as a doomsday option for dealing with Nationalist alienation is a matter for conjecture.

Yet within a year, on 15 November 1985, the Hillsborough Agreement was signed. Clearly, thinking people – a small number of officials on both sides and a totally committed Garret Fitzgerald – set to work to pick up the pieces and seek to find a way forward. The Agreement was historic in that it aligned for the first time British government policy with the majority rather than the minority on the island of Ireland, inter alia by establishing a consultative role for the Dublin government in certain aspects of the governance of Northern Ireland.

There were unintended as well as intended consequences, with violence continuing for nearly a decade, but the Agreement was a catalyst and laid the basis for breaking eventually the political stalemate. The strands began coming together in the early nineties with some attempts at talks featuring the two governments and the main political parties in Northern Ireland but excluding Sinn Fein. This exclusion, and the continuing background of political violence, doomed the negotiations at first but, in the words of one seasoned transatlantic observer, the pieces for a settlement were on the table.

The logjam was finally broken with the historic Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993. In the Declaration the British government declared inter alia it had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland and that it was for the people of Ireland alone to determine their future. This proved sufficient to nudge the IRA and then the loyalist paramilitaries into declaring ceasefires in the autumn of 1994.

Much of the credit for the Declaration must belong to the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who worked tirelessly, with the aid of, again, a small team of officials, to achieve a path to peace from the moment he became Taoiseach. It was certainly, as Newton observed, a case of standing on giants’ shoulders, in terms of the foundations already laid by Garret Fitzgerald, John Hume and Alec Reid among others, but Reynolds’ unique approach was to seek peace first and sort out the constitutional modalities later.

There can be no doubt that this approach, which is also Reynolds’ political legacy, worked. It is, therefore, particularly sad to record that Albert Reynolds, now stricken by the final stages of Alzheimer’s, was too ill to attend the Declaration’s twentieth anniversary celebrations in Dublin last December. Mrs Reynolds attended on his behalf, together with the former British Prime Minister of the time John Major.

Political developments within Northern Ireland since 1994 have resembled a roller coaster ride with advances, setbacks, swoops and ascents. But the peace has held, Sinn Fein is now in government with the DUP and, gradually, differences have been ironed out, starting with the easiest. But a significant rump remains and it should be kept in mind that political consensus exists only to the extent that all sides feel it is better to be inside the tent than out in the cold and that “jaw jaw is better than war war.” There are still two tribes in Northern Ireland with different concepts of national identity.

Hence the Haass involvement, this time also without any direct input from the two governments. Two of the issues that divide – parades and flags – are of totemic significance to many on the loyalist side who regard them as zero sum ones where any concession would signify defeat. 2013 saw some serious and nasty rioting over both issues, particularly over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall. The flag is now a badge of identity, just as the schools attended and the games played were and still are. There is much talking and teasing out on these issues still to be done. A change in mind-set is perhaps too much to hope for.

The third issue – coming to terms with the past – is even more tricky and has an ominous external dimension. A lot of blood was shed, a lot of innocents murdered on both sides, a lot of hurt is still to be got over. Recent revelations confirming not only collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries but even involvement by some of those forces in numerous killings over a generation have complicated matters further. This is one that will run. The glib call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in post-Apartheid South Africa is simply not applicable. In South Africa one side was victorious, one side lost. In Northern Ireland there have been no losers.

January 12 2014


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