Lise Hand: Heroes of Good Friday keen to remind us that peace is still a process
ANYONE strolling into Dublin Castle yesterday for the peace forum might have been slightly disconcerted to find the upper yard crawling with bobbies and villainous-looking chaps. Not what one expects from a conference on forging reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Mercifully it was a film set, and the only shooting being done was for the new series of BBC's Victorian drama 'Ripper Street' about the Jack the Ripper murders.
Inside the State Apartments, a day-long forum was under way to review the progress of peace in the North since the Good Friday Agreement was hammered out in Hillsborough on April 10, 1998.
Members of community groups from both sides of the sectarian divide took part in workshops, with peace-building organisations during the morning followed by a panel discussion involving a couple of the participants, former foreign affairs junior minister Liz O'Donnell and Jonathan Powell. Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff for a decade and he wrote an excellent behind-the-scenes account of the peace process, titled 'Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland'.
The discussion took place in St Patrick's Hall – the venue for the astonishing state dinner for Britain's monarch over two years ago when Queen Elizabeth opened her speech as Gaeilge – a resounding confirmation that peace in the North had taken root.
Of course, the peace isn't perfect. As some of the speakers pointed out, there are now 10 times more peace walls dividing communities than when the agreement was signed, and segregated education is still standard. Moreover, the forum was taking place while Belfast was on high alert after a series of letter bombs were intercepted in recent days.
In his speech, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said this had been "a fraught year for community and political relations" in the North.
"Bland and formulaic words extolling the peace process as though it was a historical fact, signed, sealed and delivered, can ring hollow when we witness the ongoing damage which division is having," he said.
Liz O'Donnell, who was part of the government negotiation team, confessed that she had felt "very ill-equipped for it, because I had only been five years a deputy in the Dail and I hadn't any particular expertise in Northern Ireland" and spoke of the feeling of "overwhelming responsibility of being charged with this task".
However, she described "the huge sense of momentum and fatigue of battle that was coming from both sides", pointing out that in 1997 the peace process was "in a moribund state at that stage because it had been blown off the stage by the Canary Wharf bomb".
The former PD minister praised the efforts of the Irish and British leaders in the process: "Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair gave their complete sustained support and undivided attention to the project," she said, while also paying tribute to UUP leader David Trimble, who took part in the negotiations while the DUP remained outside the talks.
"It meant that David Trimble was always susceptible to being attacked electorally and politically – every move he made, he was always looking over his shoulder because (Ian) Paisley was outside the process laughing at his best endeavour, and that made things very difficult," she said.
Jonathan Powell, who continues to work in conflict resolution around the world, including in the Middle East, began by declaring that his involvement in the peace process was "the most fulfilling thing I ever did in my life, and the most important".
He told the audience that he had learned several things from the experience, including the importance of process.
'If you don't have a process, you have a vacuum and that vacuum is very rapidly filled by violence," he said. "What we were doing was trying to keep the peace process bicycle moving forward, what we did not want to do was let it fall over, have anyone walking out of the talks, even if it meant absorbing a lot of political pain."
He recalled flying to Belfast for talks with Sinn Fein in 2004 just after the governments had failed to get agreement with Ian Paisley, and while en route to the meeting he got news of the Northern Bank robbery – the biggest bank robbery in world history – that had taken place the night before "and the dogs on the street knew the IRA had done it", he was told.
"I felt like getting straight back into the car and going back to London. But I kicked a stone, stubbed my toe and decided to get on with it."
Thankfully they all did. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Greysteel massacre when eight people were murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in Derry.
Peace may come dripping slow, but slow is better than not at all.