The Good Friday Agreement Twenty-five years on: The Summer of 1998 and the Long Road to Peace

Travelers were officials working in Anglo-Irish Division who would weekly travel north to meet contacts, learn what was going on, report back and feed into intergovernmental discussions. Memory jog seeing my NI reports surface in the released state papers.[1] The parades issue was my beat as a traveler.  It pitched NI into new levels of heightened social tensions with dire potential.

Flashpoints combusted when Orange Lodges insisted on marching through nationalist areas. Places like the Lower Ormeau Road in south Belfast and the small village of Dunloy in the heart of Orange country in Antrim.  Drumcree in Armagh, the birthplace of Orangism, emerged as the leading battle of wills. 

Portadown Orange Lodge No. 1 held a traditional church service at Drumcree on the Sunday before the Twelfth of July, the annual celebration of King William of Orange’s victory over King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691.  The traditional route took them along the Garvaghy Road, a nationalist housing estate on the edge of the predominantly loyalist Portadown. For the Twelfth, Portadown centre would be festooned with red, white and blue bunting, curb stones similarly painted, and triumphal arches erected across the street depicting King Billy astride a white horse.

Why now, with the ceasefires in place? As my contact and friend Brendan McAllister of Mediation Northern Ireland explained to me, the parades issue emerged after the paramilitary ceasefires as the new vehicle for the cross-community divisions that lay at the heart of the conflict.  The struggle between the paramilitaries and the security forces had acted as a default, a kind of lethal Punch and Judy show between ‘professionals’ on both sides, paramilitaries and the security forces.[2] 

The Orange Lodges insisted that they had the right to march ‘the Queen’s highways.’  Resident groups resisted this, saying they should not be locked in their homes with the security forces aiding a sectarian and triumphal demonstration. Each side saw in this a contest about their place in society, their rights, and the esteem of their identity.

The British Government appointed the North Commission to review parades and marches.  It reported that “The dispute in the summer of 1996 between the Loyal Orders and Nationalist residents groups, which required major intervention by the police under the public order legislation, brought Northern Ireland close to anarchy.”[3] Since the issue was on my desk, I drafted the Government’s response to the North Review.  It appeared from my research that while the right to assembly was a well-established one in many jurisdictions, there was no right to decide the route to that assembly.  Our submission argued that each parade dispute be subjected to arbitration based on the rule of law to adjudicate between those who insisted on marching and those who resisted such marches. The Director General, Sean Ó hUigínn, reviewed, honed and approved the draft. We traveled to meet the North Review to discuss the submission, Sean leading the delegation and responding to their questions with his eloquence and deep intellect. He left satisfied with the outcome. The North Review recommended the establishment of a Parades Commission operating under a new Public Processions (NI) Act 1998.[4] 

Tensions spilled over again in July 1997 as the Garvaghy Residents were cleared off their streets by the RUC on the night before the Orange parade. Riots broke out across the North.  The Minister, Ray Burke, called me to his office and instructed me to meet the residents. From the rise above Newry town, an eerie sight of plumes of black smoke rose across the North.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the Drumcree march in July became a test case.  The newly established Parades Commission had ruled against the parade going via the Garvaghy Road. Loyalists and Orangemen gathered outside the church at Drumcree.  Nationalist supporters flooded into the Garvaghy Road.  The British Army dug a ditch and put up barbed wire in between both groups. There was something primal about the carnival of menace, jeering, fireworks and hatred from Drumcree hill. Everything seemed to be on the line: rights, law and order, the authority of the Parades Commission, the future.

In an attempt to head off the confrontation, ‘proximity talks’ were convened.  The Orange Order refused to meet directly with the Garvaghy Residents, seeing in this an admission that the Residents had a say in public order.  I was with them as the Government’s representative.  Their legal advisor was Rosemary Nelson from nearby Lurgan. I knew Rosemary from previous cases that we had raised through the Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Conference.  We talked a lot about the North in the longueurs of the proximity talks, about the tensions of living there, of the relief she felt whenever she crossed the border south. There wasn’t much for me to do but observe, check with contacts, make sure no untoward or unacceptable initiatives made matters worse, and keep Dublin closely informed. Under the leadership of the new DG of Anglo-Irish, Dermot Gallagher, senior officials in Dublin, Belfast and London were actively engaged and monitoring developments, advising the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as developments unfolded. I’m sure the lines between Ahern and Blair were busy. Up north, as a mediator trusted by all sides including leading churchmen on both sides, Brendan McAllister was trying his best to cajole a solution. My opposite number was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.  Jonathan too tried his best to negotiate a solution as he shuttled between Portadown Orange Lodge No 1 and the Garvaghy Road Residents. 

Then a horrific incident changed the atmosphere. Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn, three young boys, died in a UVF firebomb attack on their home in Ballymoney on July 12th. Widespread condemnation was immediate, including from some very courageous Protestant clergymen who spoke out from the pulpits.  A new consensus coalesced, enough was enough. Tensions eased, the Parades Commission’s decision was upheld. Garvaghy Road did not see an Orange Parade.

The Good Friday Agreement faced another dreadful test a month later.  On August 15th the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, killing 29 and including more than 200.  It was the worst incident of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, surpassed in lethality only by the Dublin Monaghan bombings in 1974 that killed 33 and injured more than 300. The consensus hardened that such murderous violence had to be consigned to the past, that the GFA was the future. 

In that summer of 1998, it was as if the Agreement, the shield of good intentions and high ambitions, made of words and ink, blessed by the people’s endorsement North and South, was being tested by the swords and dragons of Northern Ireland.  

Though Northern Ireland’s swordsmen and dragons died hard, the shield stood.  There would be other killings, for sure. In March 1999, Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb exploded under her car.  It was claimed by a loyalist group.  Yet peace had the upper hand and the inclination to use of violence ebbed.  Even the means to carry it out were tackled, led by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.  Canada’s General John de Chastelain played a key role in this along with its other members.  I had never been sure that decommissioning had been feasible.  In the wake of the GFA, a republican contact in Derry had thrown a live round across a table at me, said take it to Dublin and “tell them that’s the only f—king decommissioning they’re going to see.” It was a stubborn issue that took years to unlock but that too was achieved. As the new policing represented by the PSNI took hold, the prize of decommissioning all paramilitary weapons was finally won. The monopoly on the use of violence was returned to the state.

Twenty-five years on, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement reminds us of what we left behind: killing and hatred, a decent future frustrated by the claims of the past. Finding peace in Northern Ireland had been a long road: the Sunningdale Agreement 1973-74, the Haughey-Thatcher summits in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, the Hume-Adams talks, the paramilitary ceases fires in 1994 and 1997, the GFA in 1998 and the twenty-nine subsequent agreements to implement it.  Through infinite hours of talks, meetings and negotiations, peace came dropping slow.

Great leaders emerged who took courageous decisions: Hume, Mallon, Haughey, Thatcher, FitzGerald, Spring, Major, Reynolds, Adams, McGuinness, Trimble, Robinson, Bruton, McAleese, Paisely (eventually) and Blair.  Countless others included the women of the Peace Movement like Mairead Corrigan and later leaders of the Women’s Coalition like Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar.  People working in NGOs and community groups at interfaces, risking vilification and physical violence to inch forward toleration.

Now the black swan of Brexit calls again for leadership of a very high order, provided on the Irish side by a new political generation. Like generations of peace makers of all kinds, as officials we were sustained by a ‘duty of hope’, committed to the process, always working toward a better future.  Here’s to more progress in 2023.

Eamonn

Ottawa

1 January 2023


[1] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/pithy-and-precise-the-post-it-notes-from-bruton-s-era-1.4765531

[2] Security forces as a term covers many organizations, including RUC, its Special Branch which was regarded as a force within a force, the British Army and a host of covert intelligence agencies, including MI5 and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.

[3] https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/parade/docs/north97sum.pdf

[4] http://www.paradescommission.org/

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