Peace at last in Northern Ireland?

By Susan McKay, Contributor
June / July 2007

Though political tensions linger, the Northern Ireland Assembly is up and running and both communities are working together for the future.

The Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, sat down together before the world’s media on March 26 to announce that they would form a power-sharing executive at Stormont.

The fact that a deal had been reached was amazing enough, but it was the manner of its announcement that left all who witnessed it open-mouthed with astonishment. Adams and Paisley were smiling, and they were speaking not just to their own people, but to the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. The tone was entirely new. It was, in a word, respectful.

It is only a year since Paisley, the First Minister, said, “Sinn Féin/ IRA will be in government over our dead bodies.” Only a year since Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, complained that if the DUP was serious about the preparation for government committee, “Why did they send the Taliban?” He was referring to, among others, Ian Paisley Jr., now Junior Minister at the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

And yet the deal was done, and done well. At the Stormont press conference, Paisley and Adams each acknowledged the terrible past in a generous and accommodating way. “We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future,” said Paisley. Adams mirrored these sentiments. “The relationships between the people of this island have been marred by centuries of discord, conflict, hurt and tragedy,” he said. “The discussions and agreement between our two parties shows the potential of what can now be achieved.”

The Stormont announcement, and the series of highly symbolic meetings and statements which flowed from it, were played out while Northern Ireland basked in sunshine such as we rarely get even in high summer. The mood was good, but there was little of the euphoria that followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998.

“I sense a quiet optimism,” said Father Andy Dolan, the parish priest for Bellaghy in south Co. Derry, a place that had more than its share of turmoil. “There is an element of wait and see. We have been disappointed so often in the past, we don’t want to get too excited.  There are people in this parish who were bombers and gunmen and spent years in jail. By now they are businessmen, pillars of society.  They don’t want their grandchildren having the life they led. They’ve got used to normality. They hope this government can hold together.”

Glenn Patterson, novelist and author of an autobiographical book called Lapsed Protestant, said he felt people were pleased and relieved about the deal, but that a lot of enthusiasm had ebbed away in the years of waiting. “I’m glad, but there is a weariness.” He also regretted that the dominance of Sinn Féin and the DUP had been achieved at a cost to small, interesting parties like the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the now defunct Women’s Coalition.

Lobbyist Quintin Oliver had just returned from a meeting at Stormont. He was full of the buzz of the new regime. “I am astounded by how normal it is up there,” he said. “There are MLA’s [Members of the Leglislative Assembly] meeting delegations, lobby groups in the Long Room, school tours… There are seventeen committees set up and staffed, and the assembly commission says it has eighteen bills ready to go. The parties are desperately serious about making this work.”

Birth of a New Legacy
Belfast is changing dramatically. A “Spire of Hope” has been erected on St. Anne’s Cathedral. The Laganside development has transformed the riverfront with buildings like the Odyssey Centre and the Waterfront Hall. The cranes are about to leave the smart new Victoria Square shopping center. And the Titanic Quarter boasts in its glossy literature and state-of-the-art website that it represents the “birth of a new legacy” for the city in what is to be “Europe’s biggest waterfront regeneration project.” On the site of the old shipyards on Queen’s Island, there are to be office blocks, apartments, a college, restaurants and hotels, in an ultra-modern new quarter designed by Texan architect Eric Kuhne.

Work on the first phase has already begun. The whole project will take up to 20 years and will, according to chief executive Mike Smith, provide up to 30,000 jobs. “Political stability is important in the eyes of the world, and the world has got so small and so competitive – the cities that do best are those that have a ‘can do’ attitude. The dark days of conflict made that impossible,” he said.

“We have had a lot of interest from U.S. investors – it isn’t philanthropic – this represents a solid business proposition. We’ll be launching our master plan in Union Station at the end of June.”

The roar of the Celtic Tiger has certainly been heard among unionist businessmen north of the border. They admire its thriving private sector, its low corporation tax (half the UK rate), its fine EU-funded motorways, and its cheaper gasoline.

According to Andy Pollak, director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies at Queens University, Intertrade Ireland was the most successful of the six implementation bodies set up under the Good Friday Agreement. “There is significant networking between businesses, and in health and agriculture,” he said. “It is common sense and it is not threatening to unionists.”

The British Army watchtowers have been demolished in Crossmaglen in South Armagh, and “bandit country” is now being spoken of as “within commuting distance” of Dublin. Property prices in the North are soaring; the Irish News highlighted the case of a house on Alliance Avenue in North Belfast. The headline surrounded a photograph of the four-bedroom red-brick. “Fourteen people were murdered in this street but now one house is worth £800,000,” it said.

The Slow Healing
On the peacelines in North Belfast, near Alliance Avenue, hard, decent work has quietly been going on for years to heal bitter divisions. Ardoyne community worker Jim Deery said people were pleased but underwhelmed by the new power-sharing deal. “We’ve already invited Margaret Ritchie [the SDLP’s minister for social development] to come and visit. We want to get away from grants and into proper investment. It’ll take a long time for the interface walls to come down, and even longer for the invisible walls. Devolution will make our road easier, but we’d have gone down it anyway.”

Two anniversaries this year remind us just how far the people of Northern Ireland have traveled. May 8, 2007 will be remembered as the first day of the brave new power-sharing executive. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the slaughter of eight IRA men and one civilian when the SAS thwarted an attempt by the IRA to blow up the RUC station (police station) in Loughgall, County Armagh.
Remembrance Day in November 2007 will, all going well, probably be marked by some finely choreographed ceremonial gestures on the part of leading figures in the executive. Twenty years ago it was the day the IRA massacred eleven civilians in a bomb attack on the Cenotaph in Enniskillen.

Not all of the dead are resting in peace. There are fifty or so victims’ groups, some of which are campaigning for the truth about how and why their loved ones were murdered. The truth could be unsettling – there is growing evidence that collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the British security forces was widespread, and of a network of well- placed informers in the IRA.

The death toll from the Troubles of the past 40 years is put at 3,720 by the authors of Lost Lives, a history of the murders.  However, when you take into account the broken hearts and early deaths of loved ones, it is much higher. There are also many, many lives which have been irreparably damaged. The mother of one victim told a reporter just a couple of years ago: “I’m dead.”

The last – let us hope and pray– victim of the Troubles was sixteen-year-old Catholic Michael ‘Mickybo’ McIlveen. He died of his injuries after he was set upon by a gang of loyalists in his home town of Ballymena last year. He was just four in the year of the ceasefires, eight when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Bright Future from Troubling Past
The creation of this new, more “normal” environment did not come easily. Adams and McGuinness have worked, and have been seen to work, to bring their people with them, abandoning the armalite in favor of the ballot box alone. Well over 90 percent of nationalists who voted in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement voted “yes.”

Yet it seemed that nothing could move Paisley. Decommissioning didn’t impress him. The declaration of “an end to the armed campaign” was dismissed – there would have to be a “testing period,” which might, according to DUP diehards, last a generation or even two. But in 2007, a mere six weeks’ delay in starting up the new regime was all that was required.

“Today we have agreed with Sinn Féin…” said Paisley, announcing the May 8 start-up date. There was, simply, nowhere else to go. The unionist people wanted devolution back. They wanted to have local ministers to lobby. They wanted a government to reflect the normality they were already living.

Edwin Poots’ first political memory was of attending a rally to celebrate the Ulster Workers’ Strike that destroyed the power-sharing executive in 1974. “I remember looking up at Stormont and thinking, what a fantastic place,” he said. A DUP MLA for the Lagan Valley constituency outside Belfast, Poots is to be minister for arts, culture and leisure.

He is a sober-suited young beef farmer, a Free Presbyterian, Apprentice Boy and Orangeman, and a church youth worker. “I’m more interested in leisure than in culture and arts,” he said. “Though I’ve nothing against culture and the arts.” His first big decision will be whether the Maze prison site, where the demolition of the H Blocks has just begun, will become the North’s new sports stadium.

His father was a DUP councilor before him, and had been targeted by theIRA, though he was “well respected by both communities,” Poots insisted. His explanation for the deal with Sinn Féin is simple. “We had exhausted all the benefits we could derive from holding out,” he said. The people were “fed up with fighting,” he said. “There is a spirit of goodwill that presently exists – a willingness to make things work.

“There’ll be plenty of issues on which we are diametrically opposed, but someone will blink and there will be compromises.”

Michelle Gildernew’s grandmother was in the vanguard of the fight against arrogant unionist majority rule. She was part of the delegation of civil rights activists and republicans, which squatted a house in Caledon, Co. Armagh in 1967. Her daughter, married and with children, was refused tenancy, which was given to a young single Protestant woman who was secretary to a local unionist.

Forty years later, Gildernew, Sinn Féin MP (member of parliament) and MLA for Fermanagh-Tyrone, has just been appointed minister for agriculture at Stormont. Like Poots, she is from farming stock. Her family is strongly republican, but like Poots, she insisted, it was respected by the other community.

Her mother was, in effect, a sort of voluntary community worker.

“She would drive a bus of relatives to the prison by day and then in the evening she’d be filling out forms for local unionist farmers.  One of them told her the Orange Order had sent him down to get her help!”

Gildernew has already met the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) and said the meeting was “excellent.” She said unionist farmers whose fields were “marching the border” had, like their nationalist neighbors, long been aware that farmers in the Republic had a better deal. “We can do things better in an all-island context,” she said.

Clarke Black, chief executive of the UFU, and from a Protestant and unionist background, broadly agreed. “The ROI [Republic of Ireland] government favors farming in a way the UK government simply does not,” he said. “We think Michelle will work well for us.
She understands our members’ needs.” Gildernew thinks the new regime at Stormont will work. “The DUP has a strong, charismatic leader who has the wherewithal to make it happen,” she said. “The mood music is good.”

Senator George Mitchell, the President Clinton appointee who chaired the talks, famously wrote that if the DUP had been at the table, the Good Friday Agreement would probably never have been reached. He also predicted in 1998 there would be setbacks along the way to its fullimplementation. “I didn’t expect it to takethis long,” he said. “But I’m pleased and gratified that it is now in place.” He paid tribute to the courageous contribution made by Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine, who died suddenly earlier this year.

Ervine’s funeral brought the first of the year’s healing moments when Gerry Adams embraced Ervine’s widow, Jeannette, then calmly walked out of the East Belfast Mission in the heart of loyalist East Belfast. Hundreds of hard men in the crowd waiting to escort the coffin swiveled their heads towards him in amazement, but no one raised a finger or shouted a word of insult.

The honeymoon days may end, and this is in any case a marriage without any sign of love. As Duncan Morrow, director of the Community Relations Council put it, we may be looking towards “not so much a shared future as a shared out one.” But where we are now is so much better than where we have come from.

Perhaps the greatest sign of hope comes from the heartfelt message sent to President Bush and the American people in April, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech University. The communication read, “Our thoughts are with the parents and families of those who have died. . .” This was the first joint message from Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, old and bitter enemies, newly united as first and deputy first ministers respectively of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. It went on, “We fully understand the impact that events like this can have on a community and the population as a whole…,” the carefully chosen words reflecting the extraordinary new diplomacy which prevails in Belfast. ♦

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