In March, 1999, I spent a night in a B&B just off the Falls Road in Springfield, Belfast. It was one of those ideas that was excellent in theory. I was in Northern Ireland to write a piece about the first anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. What better way to mark its tentative journey towards normality than by checking out a newly opened guest house in one of the city’s most notorious trouble spots?
Though the B&B was comfortable and the owners hospitable, the trip did not go as planned. The day after I arrived, the prominent human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries who planted a bomb under her car in Lurgan. One of the reasons she was targeted was that she had represented the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition in their battle with the Orange Order and the RUC over annual marches to and from Drumcree Church in nearby Portadown.
And so, instead of reporting on the province’s fledgling tourism industry, I found myself trapped between Army Land Rovers and angry locals who vented their anger in the time-honoured way: by tossing petrol bombs and setting fire to ambushed cars and buses.
That’s how it was in the months after the peace agreement was signed 20 years ago this week. The referendum that followed may have been successful – 72.2 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour of the accord – but the road ahead was full of booby traps.
In the 16 months I covered the province for this paper, there were many high points – SDLP leader John Hume and UUP leader David Trimble being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize among them – but they were punctuated with atrocities perpetrated by those unwilling to abandon the Armalite for the ballot box, most memorably the murder of the Quinn brothers – Richard, 11, Mark, nine, and Jason, seven – as they slept in their house in Ballymoney (July 1998) and the Real IRA bombing of Omagh (August 1998).
Politically too the country seemed to be perpetually perched on the edge of a precipice as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Trimble struggled to keep their hardline members on board over issues such as the decommissioning of weapons or moves to address the under-representation of Catholics in the RUC.
So many bitter pills to swallow, none more so than the release of paramilitary killers as their victims’ relatives looked on. There were plenty who could not let go of their anger; but I met a few who had managed to forgive and many more who were prepared to “suck it up” so Northern Ireland’s legacy of hatred would not be handed down the generations.
The last time I went to the province as a journalist was 27 November, 1999. Seven months pregnant, I made my way to Belfast’s Waterfront Hall where Trimble somehow managed to convince the Ulster Unionist Council to enter a devolved administration with Sinn Fein, even though decommissioning had not yet started.
There were setbacks to come, of course; the Assembly was stop-start for another seven years and by the time it was running properly – with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the DUP leader Ian Paisley at the helm – Trimble had been forced to resign. Still, that one victory was a testament to what could be achieved with determination, courage and a willingness to look beyond personal heartache and immediate political advantage.
Any progress made was also down to the commitment of figures outside Northern Ireland, including US senator George Mitchell (the architect of the peace agreement), the then prime minister Tony Blair and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam, who is generally credited with getting Sinn Fein to the table.
So much personal investment. And yet, 20 years on, what has become of Northern Ireland? Its assembly has been suspended for more than a year (as a result of the “cash for ash” heating scandal), the spectre of direct rule has once again been invoked, the DUP has formed an expedient alliance with the Tories (raising questions about the government’s impartiality) and the Good Friday Agreement – secured with the help of the EU – has been put at risk as we attempt to exit it.
Could any of those political titans who persevered through years of setbacks; who negotiated their way through impasse after impasse; who must have held their heads in their hands in exasperation; have imagined their hard-won achievements would be so casually squandered by their successors? You can mock Blair for his “hand of history” line, but at least he (and John Major before him) had some concept of what was at stake.
David Cameron did not merely take his eyes off Northern Ireland like a distrait parent, he gambled its future in a game of bluff and lost. Having taken over as leader, Theresa May was already in a challenging situation, but she didn’t make it any easier by cosying up to the DUP. Even now, she seems impervious to the dire warnings from those who were instrumental in delivering the Good Friday Agreement. In the past few weeks, Mitchell and Blair have reiterated their belief that a hard border post-Brexit could provoke nationalist wrath, while Trimble has said any attempt to give the province special EU status (to avoid a hard border) would have the same effect on loyalists.
Meanwhile, Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner demonstrated the depth of his concern for the future of the province when, at a private meeting of MEPs in Brussels last month, he reportedly dismissed the Good Friday Agreement as a “shibboleth” and said it should be ignored in Brexit negotiations.
Towards the end of the feature I eventually wrote on the first anniversary on the peace accord, I imagined a day when tourism really would blossom in Northern Ireland; perhaps, I wrote, there would come a time when tour buses would take visitors to see the gable ends. It seemed fanciful then, but it has come to pass.
With the help of European money, Belfast has been transformed into a vibrant city; its malls throng with shoppers, its Titanic museum on the site of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard is packed with sightseers.
Northern Ireland has moved on psychologically as well as economically. In a BBC documentary last week comedian Patrick Kielty, who voted for the peace agreement though it meant his father’s killers would be freed, pointed out that the country’s political representatives are still poles apart: nationalists see a United Ireland as an inevitability, unionists as an impossibility.
But his interviews also show how much everyday life has changed, with people on both sides of the divide working together, socialising together and – in a handful of integrated schools – being educated together. Most of them told Kielty they felt let down by the politicians – specifically those from Northern Ireland who are too stubborn to come back to Stormont, but also, presumably, their English counterparts who play pitch and toss with their futures.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, all those in positions of power should reflect on how much it cost people like Kielty to vote for peace; and how much more will be sacrificed if Northern Ireland is allowed to slip back into its troubled past.