The tragic death of Lyra McKee, a young and gifted journalist killed as she covered riots in Derry last night, is a jolting and stark reminder of what lurks beneath the surface in Northern Ireland. Yet another obvious reason why Brexiteers need to be held accountable if they insist on recklessly ignoring Irish history. For those unable to recall our recent past I wanted to share with you some of my own experiences during ‘the Troubles’ as a young journalist in the late eighties. How quickly we forget.
The ‘troubles’ in Ireland always loomed large in my childhood and formative years. Like most families we had our stories of victimhood from the War of Independence. The hunger strikes of 1981 that left ten men dead hardened my own republican skin and gave me a passion for history studies that served me well ultimately.
In college, I remember a great trip to Belfast accompanying a friend to carry out research as we photographed and decoded the urban landscape of murals which were all pervasive back then. In those days, the murals helped you stay on the right side of the tracks. And, in the rare instance where murals were absent, you navigated the invisible sectarian borders by observing what the pubs were advertising: Tennants for unionists; Harp lager for republicans.
After leaving college and taking up my first serious journalistic assignment I was to spend a year on the ground all over the six counties of northern Ireland documenting a violent period of our country’s history. In those times things were ugly: tit-for-tat killings of civilians were such a regular occurrence that media hardly reported it anymore. “People are fed up with Northern Ireland” a UK journalist friend told me over a pint of Harp one night.
In March 88 in Milltown cemetery a lone loyalist gunman called Michael Stone opened up on a crowd of mourners (there to bury three unarmed IRA volunteers who had been executed by undercover SAS forces as they gathered intel on British troop movements on the Rock of Gibraltar). In the end three people died and up to sixty were injured and all of it caught on the assembled TV cameras. In the politics of paint in northern Ireland of that time, a mural sprung up hours later declaring: three birds with one Stone.
Then, a few days later, at the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, two plain clothes British soldiers drove into the path of the cortege and were pulled from their cars, driven away, and later found naked on waste ground beaten to death. Again, the whole episode was filmed live on tv (including the two soldiers being driven away in a Black Taxi) and the anger of the crowd and the barbarity of the killings underscored, if needed, how far down the spiral of violence we were in those bleak last days of the eighties.
Then there was the ‘normal’ stuff for journalists to follow up: allegations (and proof) of torture were rampant; internment was an accepted method of ‘managing’ the Catholic population; up to 30'000 British soldiers on the streets. In the area of Crossmaglen (known as Bandit country), where I spent many’s a day and night back then, it was estimated that British soldiers outnumbered the local male population. What’s more, the army had commandeered the local Gaelic football pitch to use as its base, much to the understandable annoyance of the locals. Helicopters constantly buzzed in the air and bodies were pulled out of ditches every other day.
In August of 88 I remember also eight British soldiers were killed by the IRA as they returned to their base. It upped the ante and tit-for-tat revved up, reprisal killings escalated and the fear and hatred became even more deep-rooted. Nobody back then saw even a sliver of hope for calm or dialogue or peace. The political rhetoric was in full throttle and the tribal narrative of oppression and resistance was the language of the day.
But, incredibly, ten years later, in 1998, bloody violence did give way as the seeds of peace were sown in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement sprung from a 1994 ceasefire declared and more or less honored by the key paramilitary organizations (interestingly, this was about six months from the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords — a conflict resolution initiative that took an altogether different direction).
An amazing 94% of the population in the Irish republic voted in favour of its terms and threw out a constitutional reference which laid claim over the entire island of Ireland. In the north of Ireland, some 74% voted for it, an even more amazing majority given that the balance of power was clearly with the unionists.
A lot of important concessions were made by politicians who, when it came to the crunch, really did give a damn and put their country’s future ahead of their political ambitions. John Hume stands out as a towering figure in this respect. Ireland’s greatest living Irish man for my money. But there were many others, including those gathered from the paramilitary circles, who opted for peace and led the charge for change.
The Agreement wasn’t easy of course. Concessions never are. Many prisoners for instance with ‘blood on their hands’, including Michael Stone, were released back on the streets. But I think both sides just came to the realization that it was unwinnable. The death and division was not worth it and, importantly, the timing coincided with a real a political will in Belfast, Dublin, Washington and London. Once the activist Irish diaspora was on board the path to peace was suddenly visible, bumps and all.
So, twenty one short years on and the historic Good Friday agreement still sets the tone of peace in Ireland. It shaped a new era on the island and remains a benchmark for conflict resolution around the world. It is easy to forget just how bad things were in those dark decades. And more decades will be needed still to ensure that the seeds of peace become as entrenched as the hatred which so recently dominated large sections of life and politics in Ireland.
The economic ‘miracle’ of the Celtic Tiger, despite all the hubris that came as part of that bulging package, was also a major factor in winning the peace in Ireland at that time. The global financial crisis that followed threatened a return to harsher economic times in Ireland — completely reminiscent of the high taxes, debt, emigration and unemployment of the eighties — but the Good Friday Agreement proved resolute enough to withstand these assaults.
In recent months there have been worrying dents to the general trend of peace in Ireland. Paramilitaries feel emboldened (by Brexit?) to step out of the shadows and pick off soft targets and scratch at the scab of sectarian bigotry.
The Good Friday Agreement is a triumph in my mind. Peace and solidarity are always preferable to murder and sectarianism. As we are tested politically and economically with Brexit in the months ahead lets hope that this remarkable piece of contemporary history is bolstered and supported by political will on both sides of the Irish Sea and that the will of the huge majority of the people of Ireland is the ultimate winner. Twenty one years and counting, onward and upward.
RIP Lyra. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.