Remembering all those who secured peace in Northern Ireland

Marking the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement as one of the greatest successes of Tony Blair’s Labour government is an excellent initiative. The GFA ended an apparently intractable conflict and saved countless lives and more marred by physical and psychological traumas.

It showed the historic difference Labour made in power. Blair, Jonathan Powell, Mo Mowlam, her successors, and the Irish and American governments built on initiatives from the Thatcher and Major governments, secured the GFA, and nursed its implementation.

But you’d have to be 35 or more to understand the context and course of peace-making in the 1990s. Labour’s campaign allows members to “catch yourself on,” as they say in Northern Ireland.

The campaign praises trade unions, which were a bulwark against barbarism. They should now be heeded on measures to mitigate continuing costs of the Troubles such as greater mental and physical ailments. The campaign rightly salutes women’s groups too.

Irish and British citizens who deserve a shout out are the many who voluntarily and bravely backed peace groups that isolated paramilitaries and their apologists.

The Peace People defied terror in the 1970s but flailed in the awful cycle of violence. The new peace movement from the late 1980s was tougher and helped pave the way for the GFA.

Campaigners exposed kneecapping, which was about enforcing paramilitary dominance in Catholic and Protestant communities. Youngsters, sometimes by appointment, were shot in the knees and sometimes the full ‘six-pack” of ankles, knees, elbows.

The Provos disrupted the Dublin-Belfast rail line with bombs and hoaxes, oddly for those seeking unification. The Peace Train Organisation organised high-profile north-south services for hundreds of people to defy division. In 1991, the Peace Train came to London where RMT leader Jimmy Knapp made it work with railway bosses. Participants were ludicrously picketed by Troops Out supporters at Euston.

The main sponsor was Irish President Mary Robinson plus most Irish parties and union and business groups. The group picketed Sinn Fein conferences to stress that Irish people rejected the IRA’s right to murder in their name and damned so-called loyalists in Belfast.

Increased Anglo-Irish security operations boxed in terrorists. Paramilitaries who bravely worked for the British and Irish governments helped. My friend, Sean O’Callaghan scuppered Provo operations before giving himself and being sentenced for prior crimes to 539 years in prison where I met him. After being pardoned, we worked together to advance peace. 

Sinn Fein, once an also-ran to the IRA though inextricably linked with it, also found contradictions between the ballot box and the bomb increasingly awkward. You cannot bomb businesses by night and back them by day.

Here, British and Irish people formed the cross-party New Consensus group in 1990. We advocated power-sharing devolution backed by a Bill of Rights, integrated education, and Northern Ireland’s right to determine its future. These underpin the GFA. We encouraged hesitant unionists to make their case and lobbied for justice for the victims of Bloody Sunday.

We organised peace vigils when people were murdered in London. One was outside a Covent Garden pub where 31 year old nurse, David Heffer was blown up. We joined his mother and sister in their distraught disbelief.

We challenged any sneaking regard for the Provos with, for instance, a presence for peace at a Troops Out demo in Islington on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We held placards saying “No more Bloody Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, etc and were confronted by a republican band drumming and shouting “I,I,IRA” at us.

We said Labour shouldn’t, as a few argued, “persuade” or coerce Protestants into a united Ireland. Blair decided in a few weeks of becoming Leader in 1994 to brush out the cobwebs and embrace Major’s approach of neutrality (the UK having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”).

On reaching Number 10, Blair worked with gusto to secure the GFA less than a year later. But it was just the beginning. Labour Northern Ireland minister Paul Murphy once described a “benign apartheid” where many Catholics and Protestants live separately. Without more integrated schools and without the need for “peace walls” that multiplied since the GFA, many parents and children will remain isolated from each other.

I was inspired by Irish left-wingers who insisted any Irish unification should follow a safe and just settlement in Northern Ireland. Parts of the British left were slow learners. Ironically, the Provos did most to impede unification but were eventually isolated and defeated by the security forces, constant social and employment reform, and the peace movement. Any new nation would have been poisoned or worse by repressing the wish of Northern Ireland to stay in the UK. Brexit may now enable unification by consent.

Labour’s diligence delivered the once impossible in 1998. We have much to celebrate and much more to do when we win power.

Gary Kent has worked in Parliament since 1987. For 20 years, before and after the GFA, he was an officer of the Peace Train and the cross-party New Consensus/Dialogue groups as well as a columnist for Irish papers, Westminster lobbyist for the integrated education movement, and an occasional adviser to the Northern Ireland trade union movement. He also regularly attended meetings of the British-Irish parliamentary body. He tweets @garykent.

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