Twenty years ago today, I was glued to the news.
It’s funny thinking about it. We didn’t have a computer, even, in those days, never mind mobile phones or Twitter. So much has changed in these past two decades. I wonder how it all might have worked out differently if social media was around then. I was 16, two years shy of being able to vote on the Agreement, but that didn’t matter. I knew exactly how important it was. We all did.
The day of the Agreement, though, wasn’t the day that has left the strongest feelings and memories. I was 12 on 31 August 1994, when the IRA announced their ceasefire. I said on Twitter recently that was the day I discovered the meaning of the word ‘hope’. It really was. I’m not sure anyone who didn’t grow up during the Troubles – or another similar situation – would understand that.
Before that day, every morning, you’d listen in dread to the news on the radio to hear what had happened overnight. It was a rare morning, it felt like, when no-one had been shot.
I remember the recurring nightmares I regularly had, the ice-cold fear of a noise downstairs in the middle of the night, because there was always the chance that the report on the morning radio news could be your family.
It never was my family. But I wasn’t unaffected. I remember very vividly the morning when nine year old me was called into my parents’ bedroom and told that one of their friends from just up the road, the father of a couple of my friends, had been shot dead (by the unionist UFF). They were trying to hold it together in front of me and my brothers. They didn’t totally succeed. I remember visiting their house that night, seeing his wife crying, seeing my friends numb. They were a little older than me, with one younger brother. It’s been decades since I’ve spoken to them, they probably don’t even remember me at all, but I remember them – in fact, that’s almost all I remember about them. What a sad way to remember your childhood friends.
I remember vividly the night a man was shot just down the road from me. I was 11, studying in the front room of our house, when I heard the shots, followed by the screech of a car rapidly accelerating away. I remember the sudden burst of frightened panic, and the look on my mother’s face as she came in to the room seconds later. Lights out. Just in case.
I remember the day I was evacuated from school, because of a bomb threat to a building beside the school. I remember being evacuated from a relative’s house, because someone left a bomb in the driveway – how quiet my whole family was as the army moved us out, and the numb curiosity I felt watching as the bomb disposal robot was brought in.
I remember the fear of crime, because you don’t call the police. The police of books and TV series, solving crimes and helping people – that concept was alien to me. That wasn’t our police. Our police weren’t on our side. I was scared of our police.
I remember the British Army helicopters overhead all the time. One, I’m certain, once followed over our car one time as we visited a relative out in the countryside. It was constant intimidation – can’t you leave us alone just to go visit someone? They were ever-present, as were the army patrols on the streets – soldiers on foot, and more commonly the army vehicles driving around. It never felt like they were there for our protection. It was an occupying army.
I remember trips to Dublin, mostly for All-Ireland GAA matches. The long queues just south of Newry, in both directions. The armoured watchtowers. The camouflaged soldiers in the bushes, as well as the ones pointing their guns into our car – with us young kids in the back. Where are you going. Open the boot. There was less fear in me than you might expect – this was my normal. My first game in the stands of Croke Park was in 1986, I still have the ticket somewhere. I was 4. This was my normal.
I remember the fear, every single evening of my life until my dad came home from work, because I lived in permanent dread that he wouldn’t. He always did. That makes me one of the lucky ones. Well, luckier. I don’t think any of us was actually lucky.
When the ceasefire was announced – it’s hard to put how I felt in words. I don’t know if there are any adequate words. Joy, elation, excitement – none of those are quite right. It wasn’t really a celebration. It wasn’t easy to really accept it, see. There was a large side of does it really mean? Could it actually be? It didn’t all change that day, of course – the army and police were still there, the unionist paramilitaries took a few more months to announce their ceasefire – but for the first time, it actually felt like the future might be different. That’s why I say that’s the day I learned the meaning of the word ‘hope’.
9 February 1996. I remember watching the evening news on TV with my mother. Seeing the news of the Canary Wharf bomb. Hearing that the ceasefire was over. It was crushing. All the old feelings came crashing back. I remember hugging my mother as we both just broke down and cried.
I remember being very disillusioned with the talks in the run-up to the Agreement. I felt the unionist parties would rather play politics than actually agree to anything. It genuinely felt like they had been using any excuse to avoid bringing Sinn Féin into the process. “No talks while the IRA campaign is ongoing”. “Just a ceasefire is not good enough, you didn’t say permanent ceasefire”. “OK, but now you have to get rid of your weapons first”. It felt like they kept moving the goalposts. Nationalists used to say that Ian Paisley was the best recruitment seargent the IRA ever had. Well, the UUP and DUP in those days were the best PR officers Sinn Féin ever had. Even once the talks got serious, I always felt the unionists were disingenuous. John Taylor saying he wouldn’t touch the draft agreement with a 40-foot bargepole, for example. I never felt that unionists had any respect for nationalism or the nationalist community. I resented that so deeply.
I’m not sure what the unionists felt, but I’m sure their opinion of the nationalists wasn’t rosy either.
I didn’t expect an agreement. I was genuinely surprised. I really was certain that this would be just another missed deadline, just another false start. I didn’t have much hope.
So, my feelings twenty years ago today were mostly surprise, and curiosity.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it went far enough. It felt like a unionist victory, despite Paisley’s objections. Oh, I would have voted for it – John Hume and Martin McGuiness signed up to it, and if they could… I suppose nobody ever feels their side has got enough in a compromise. Still, I felt like unionists didn’t compromise enough. I mean, what did nationalists get? Equality, which should have been a given; some talking-shop north-south bodies, which were meaningless; and the possibility of a future border poll. Powersharing, but in a returned Stormont. You know, if unionists had accepted just a little more, say north-south bodies with real powers, perhaps with representation in the Dáil – it might have solved the question for good. Perhaps the unionists compromised as much as they could, but did they compromise as much as they should?
Maybe it was impossible for them to go any further at that time – after all, they framed any compromise as concessions to the IRA. To them, concessions would give legitimacy to the IRA campaign. In a way, it’s hard to argue with that; the IRA’s methods made their own aims so much more difficult to achieve. But somewhat forgotten as a result were the genuine grievances of the nationalist community, which were after all, the reasons the IRA existed. Indeed, to this day, many unionists still refuse to acknowledge the apartheid nature of the northern state under their rule; nearly half a century of fixed elections and outright discrimination.
At the end of the day, though, regardless of the precise nature of the compromise, the agreement meant something else, at a deeper level, to nationalists. For the first time, the vast majority of nationalists felt that politics was a genuine option to make a difference. It meant we didn’t have to be afraid of the state anymore. With the border posts disappearing, it meant that we could genuinely feel part of Ireland. It meant that the violence was over.
Only a few short months later, we got a stark reminder of what it was all about. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on 15 August 1998, when the dissident so-called Real IRA set off a bomb in Omagh. Still now, I can’t even bring myself to talk about that. Suffice to say, it brought back some of the feelings which had gradually faded through the peace process. It reminded us what the whole point of the Agreement was, to make sure that didn’t happen again. That’s why nationalists supported the agreement almost universally. Yes, some may have felt that the agreement didn’t go far enough for what we wanted; but compromise or conflict? That wasn’t a choice.
Some of the key people involved are controversial figures, either at home or abroad. But no matter what else you may think of them, we owe a debt to them – to Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, John Hume, David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, David Ervine, Monica McWilliams, George Mitchell, and many others. I want to single out the late Mo Mowlam – I felt she put her heart and soul into trying to make it happen, that she genuinely cared in a way no other British politician ever has.
So, where are we now, twenty years later? Back in limbo. It feels like many unionists still don’t respect our Irish identity, and still aim for superiority over compromise, as we saw with the DUP’s refusal to agree to an Irish Language Act, collapsing the latest round of negotiations. That DUP refusal, of course, is based on their impressions of the nationalist community; they feel that we want to erode their British identity. We don’t trust each other.
I feel like many have got integration wrong. I feel like the wish has been to homogenise the communities. I don’t think that’s the right approach. I will never stop being Irish. I never have and never will feel in any way British. Many unionists will say the reverse. I believe we need to recognise both, as well as Northern Irish or other variations, as equally valid. Celebrate and support both, regardless of the constitutional arrangement, or how it might change in the future. The unionist community may be descended from colonisers, but that was hundreds of years ago. They’ve lived here for generations. They have as much right to live here as anyone. We need to learn how to live together, how to work together, and how to accept our cultural differences.
That feels rather far away right now. In an eerie echo of John Major’s government of the mid-90s, when the IRA ceasefire collapsed, Theresa May’s Conservative party relies on unionist votes for their majority in Westminster. The Executive has been suspended for over a year, with little short-term hope for re-establishment. Brexit, meanwhile, poses an existential threat to the Good Friday Agreement. The future feels very uncertain.
One thing is different this time, however. Although a dissident threat is occasionally noted, nobody believes there is a serious risk of a return to violence. There will be no more Omaghs, or Manchesters, or Canary Wharfs, or Greysteels, or Loughinislands. No more nine year olds will be told news that will change their lives. The decisions of today are being made without the spectre of paramiliarism hanging over our heads. Politics may not be perfect, but now, thankfully, it’s all we have. I lecture students in university who are younger than the Agreement. There’s an entire new generation that has never lived with that fear. That’s what we wanted.
Not everything was solved, that day 20 years ago, on Friday 10 April 1998, far from it. Divisions are as deep as ever, and tough decisions lie ahead. But it did remove the fear from our lives. It wasn’t a perfect Friday; but it was definitely a Good Friday.