Not long after John Major had issued the Downing Street Declaration (the Joint Declaration on Peace in Northern Ireland), at the end of 1994 , I was on a political visit to Dublin.
During the discussion with officials about whether this latest initiative would achieve anything, one senior Irish official, something of a wag, asked me if I knew what the worst thing was about John Major.
“What was that?” I asked.
“He knows nothing about Irish history,” came the reply.
Then my interlocutor put a second question: “what was the best thing about John Major?” He rapidly told me the answer:
“He knows nothing about Irish history” came the mischievous circular reply.
I guess that the questions were a gentle reminder that although we all need an understanding of history, of what went before, we mustn’t become incapacitated by it.
Robert Kee, now in his nineties and one of the best informed commentators on Irish affairs, had grasped the danger of being caught in the time warp of past events when in his masterly “Ireland: A History”, written in 1980, he wrote that the Irish had simply become prisoners of their own history. Britain and Ireland can only escape the traumas of their shared history by facing the past honesty and attempting to heal it.
The Downing Street Declaration was John Major’s attempt to escape from the prison of history and to chart a way forward.
In large part the Declaration had been inspired by the shocking deaths, earlier in the year, of Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball, the two Cheshire children killed by IRA bombs in Warrington’s shopping precinct.
I had seen the Prime Minister’s genuine anguish as we talked with Tim’s father, Colin, at the Warrington memorial service.
Any man with an ounce of humanity knew that there had been too many funerals and too many lives lost in the name of a political cause; and John Major has plenty of humanity.
There was, of course, no theoretical logic in his and Albert Reynolds courageous decision to try and break the recurring cycles of revenge and to launch a new peace process. Logic alone or regard for the oft repeated slogans of both sides would suggest that it was impossible to simultaneously satisfy both Loyalist and Republican demands – one wanted to stay in the United Kingdom, the other wanted a United Ireland. The futility of it all was summed up by Cardinal Cahal Daly, who played such an important role in moving the argument away from intransigence: “who in his sane senses wants to bomb one million Protestants into a United Ireland” he said.
Yet, endless bombings there had been and continued to be. In particular, along with the Warrington bombing two seminal events in the previous decade had paved the way for the Downing Street Declaration: the hunger strikes and the Brighton bomb.
Between May and August 1981 ten Republican hunger strikers had taken their own lives by starving themselves to death at Long Kesh: H.M.Prison, the Maze. One of their number, Bobby Sands had, during the strike, sensationally been elected to the House of Commons in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.
By the end of the strike Sands was one of ten men who were dead.
Three years later, in October 1984, the IRA took their revenge by planting a twenty pound bomb in the Grand Hotel at Brighton – killing five members of the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped with her life and Margaret Tebbit was so badly injured that she has spent the remainder of her life confined to a wheelchair.
Not everyone sought revenge. One man at least – the last of the strikers – decided that there must be another way.
On the 26th of September 1981 Liam McCloskey’s family, with the support of Fr.Neil Carlin, effectively ended the strike when they agreed to medical intervention and intravenous feeding. Liam had been on hunger strike for 55 days and had lost many of his physical capacities and was sinking into a coma.
I subsequently got to know Liam – seven years later he was one of the guests at my wedding – and he spoke at a number of meetings about his subsequent decision, following the strike, to renounce violence. He told me that the deciding moment had come when he was reading the one book permitted in his cell – a New Testament. On reading St.John’s Gospel Liam came to see himself, his beliefs and other people differently.
Echoing Robert Kee’s remark about the prisons of Irish history, Liam once told me that as he had begun, for the first time, to meet men from the other side of the communal divide, he realised that the biggest problem in Northern Ireland was a lack of shared history. Both sides knew what had happened to them but not what had happened to the other side. Neither side had the capacity to move on from the monstrous outrages which had been perpetrated against them or their forefathers; no-one could find healing.
It was the courage of men like Liam to chart a different course that also allowed Northern Ireland to take some tentative steps out of the quagmire.
Anyone looking for applicability of Northern Ireland’s experience in other places of conflict should always remember how many false dawns were necessary and how many false starts before halting progress began to be made.
The Downing Street Declaration, signed nine years later, signalled a determination to move on; but it was by no means the end of the violence. Canary Wharf and the Manchester bombings were yet to come.
And even with the signing of the Belfast Agreement (the Good Friday Agreement) in 1998 more savagery and violence would visit Northern Ireland. The Omagh bombing in August of that year claimed the lives of 29 people – including six children under 13 – and injured over 220 people; and earlier this year, again in Omagh, the cold blooded murder of the Catholic police officer, 25-year-old Ronan Kerr, was a sobering reminder of the hateful, atavistic, divisions which can so easily leave families bereaved. Ronan’s murder was also a wicked attempt to deter Catholics from joining the police. His mother, Nuala, said that only by supporting the evolution of a genuinely neutral police force could Northern Ireland hope to rid itself of violent warlords.
It is often said that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. Perhaps Omagh and the cross community repudiation of the killing of Ronan Kerr underlines how different Northern Ireland has become. Its leaders and vast majority of its people have no wish to return to the politics of fear and the politics of hate; and, as the Queen’s historic State visit to Ireland underlined, nor do the people of the Republic.
But we must not be complacent. Recent rioting, sectarian street fighting, and Ronan Kerr’s killing reminds us, there still remain those who refuse to accept that violence has had its day. In their bitterness, they resemble H.G.Wells’ poor old Mr.Polly: “he is not so much a human being as a civil war.”
This is not a time for fighting old battles but a time to treasure the peace; a time to build on the gains and a time for everyone to play their part in entrenching the rule of law and in helping to dismember all organisations that seeks to set themselves above the law and democratic government. Those are surely the best and worst lessons we can learn from Irish history.