It wasn’t perfect—and peace will always be a process. But going through my mum’s newspaper clippings is a potent reminder of what the Agreement meantby Sarah Creighton / April 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
A few weeks ago, my Mum invited us all over for tea where she fed us till our stomachs were full and my youngest brother fell asleep on the sofa. At some point in the evening, the conversation made its usual turn to politics. I can’t really remember how we got there, but my Mum mentioned that she had a stash of old newspapers and magazines up in her room. In the end—to show us how much she had—she brought down the bag.
Cut to now, and it’s my first full week at work after Easter. I’m flat out. I’ve half a mind to write something about the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement—as a Northern Irish woman with an interest in law and politics—but I’m not sure what to say. Head full of random ideas and thoughts, I dander up to my Mum’s house after work. Over coffee, we look through her stash of old papers.
It’s an odd experience looking back. It’s only by doing so that you realise how far you’ve come. The Good Friday Agreement deserves to be celebrated. But it’s important to remember that it’s one part of the story. Peace is a process, and it doesn’t happen in a day.
My mum, like a lot of people, gets very angry when she talks about the old days. We didn’t lose anybody in the Troubles but my parents grew up in the worst of it. My family’s story is one of trying to live a normal life while chaos reigned. My Granda was a civilian searcher in Belfast City Centre. He checked vehicles as they passed through checkpoints.
31st August 1994-the IRA declare a ceasefire. I'm 7. pic.twitter.com/gqjFHxzjt8
— ?Sarah ? (@Saraita101) April 9, 2018
It’s significant, I think, that the oldest newspaper my mum owns is about IRA ceasefire of 1994. It’s a copy of the Belfast Telegraph and the headline reads, ‘It’s Over.’ The articles in the paper are cautious, but there is catharsis in that headline. The pages are spattered with hope. It’s hard to look at, in a way, because of what happens later: in 1996, an IRA bomb rips through Canary Warf killing two people. The ceasefire is over.
On that day though, August 31st, 1994, there was a moment when people thought: maybe it’s finally done.
People outside Northern Ireland know the Troubles via the worst atrocities; Omagh, Enniskillen, Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, La Mon. But at home, the day-to-day reality was a constant stream of news about shootings, killings and disappearances; horror stories that were passed down to my generation.
My mum also has a copy of the famous Princess Diana memorial Hello magazine. The date on the magazine is the 6th September 1997. Three days after that, petrol bombs were thrown at the homes of two Catholic families in the Protestant Ballykeel Estate in County Antrim. It’s horrifying to think about.
The paper from 1994 gives a hint of what was to come, in an article which quotes John Hume saying, “Now we face the primary challenge, which is to reach agreement among our divided people.”
The Agreement that was reached four years later was called the Belfast Agreement (or the Good Friday Agreement.) On the 10th April 1998 the right people sat around the right table and decided to do a deal. A copy was sent to every house in the country in anticipation of a referendum on the 22nd May. We still have the one that was sent through our door. My mum sighs when I manage to spill coffee on the back page.
The Agreement is a momentous thing. But next to the front page from 1994, it is wondrous. At its heart, it is about working through pain and moulding it into something good. It is a nod to acknowledging differences and saying, “we can do better than this.”
Parts of the Agreement—the section on prisoners for instance—were hard for people to accept. Still, the country voted ‘Yes.’ The thirty-five-page document is a little beacon of hope for other conflicts. Twenty years later it’s still amazing to think: we did that.
It’s important not to sugar-coat the Agreement. It is not perfect. The signatories left a lot out—so much so that twenty years later we are still filling in the blanks.
Nor was all well after Good Friday. On the 15th August 1998, a bomb exploded in Omagh killing 29. We have newspapers from the Millennium, the front page splashed with the colour of fireworks. The wrangling over IRA decommissioning began in the year 2000. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday started on March 27th. The Real IRA was suspected of firing an anti-tank rocket at MI6 in September. All this, only two years after the peace deal.
The other newspaper we have is dated 27th March 2007, and features the picture that still boggles the mind. They’re sitting at different tables but the image is of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams together. They smile thinly at the camera—even they look like they can’t quite believe what’s happening. I’ll be explaining that very moment to my own children. It’s another story of how enemies sat around a table and decided to do the right thing.
Peace takes time. History didn’t end when Trimble and Mallon shook hands. The Good Friday Agreement was later amended by the St Andrew’s Agreement. We’ve also had Stormont House and Fresh Start. Every agreement tackles one set of problems and neglects to address others.
The amount of stops and starts in the political process has become something of a joke. As I write this, Northern Ireland has now been without a government for over a year. It is maddening. It’s certainly not something we should accept as normal. Bad governance and incompetence are not tolerable just because the bullets and bombs have stopped.
Even so, every single political agreement pulls Northern Ireland forward a little. We are watching peace stumble as it rises and falls. The 1994 front page is a shadow of an era gone by; thankfully, a tale my mum can tell me over coffee. Everything that came after, every small step towards peace, came because of what happened on a cloudy day on the 10th April 1998. During his speech at Queen’s University to mark the twenty-year anniversary, George Mitchell said that the Good Friday Agreement did not bring about peace, it just made peace possible. That’s something to be thankful for.