In July 1998 Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn were murdered when a loyalist petrol-bomb attack sent their Ballymoney house aflame in one of the most despicable acts of Northern Irish violence. They were aged just 10, nine and eight.
Later that summer came the horror of Omagh. One month after the bomb, the Manic Street Preachers’ song If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next, charted — an apt, yet eerily coincidental soundtrack to reflect the mood of Northern Ireland.
Four months earlier, 71pc supported the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, sending a message to those tasked with getting on with politics, that people wanted killing consigned to the past. That year, 57 people had their lives taken from them.
The violent days are mostly gone, thank God. No sane person wishes a return to that time of despair, anger, and sheer fatigue.
Despite all of this, 1998 was also a time of positivity, of energy, and an example to NI of political achievement.
They may have had their differences, reflective of deep societal issues — some of which still surface today — but the multi-party talks were largely successful in moving Northern Ireland from a place of hostility, to one where, for the most part, daily life improved over time.
Nowadays, people are fed up with the political system, which has largely squandered the goodwill given to it by the public.
Confidence in Stormont’s administration is waning; not helped by its cack-handed approach to Brexit — or Covid, which dominates the news cycle. In the late 1990s, people were engaged with what was happening, and discussed the news in detail. Now, apathy means they are more likely to switch it off.
All of this comes to mind with last week’s annual release of the State Papers. Largely focused on the 1990s, it provokes the casting of a nostalgic eye back to when politics was varied, fast-paced, and compelling.
Last week’s papers also remind us that as much as the public were fed up with the daily death toll, so too were our representatives.
The talks process, also, was too much for some at times. The late PJ McGrory recounted to an Irish official in 1994 that Gerry Adams had told him that John Hume had “literally cried on McGuinness’s shoulder”.
While we might not have loved them, we were on first-name terms with our politicians, and, even if familiarity did breed contempt, watching the news was akin to watching a soap opera unfold — a kind of testosterone-laden Emmerdale with Northern Irish accents.
In 1998, Ian Paisley was booming from outside Castle Buildings about betrayal, David Trimble was trounced as a traitor, and the Shinners were being deloused of the IRA by the other parties, who made republican ceasefires a precondition before entry to the talks process.
Every day brought new drama, and the adrenalin of watching it resolve over time was addictive. We were invested in it. By the time Bono was lifting the arms of Hume and Trimble onstage, most people — whatever side they were on — were totally hooked.
Politicians were lively, irreverent and even interesting. Today, finding a minister to make themselves available for an interview is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Back then, rather than hiding behind press statements, they spoke their minds. Like the late Davy Ervine, who, state papers reveal, went head to head with Martin McGuinness during the Mitchell talks.
While papers also cover the attitude of the British and Irish governments to Sinn Féin (predictably privately expressing their belief of who held IRA leadership positions), they don’t capture just how frantic the process could be at times.
In an unusually unguarded moment, the sight of Gerry Adams yelling: “I am absolutely pissed off!” after his party was expelled from the talks process, was memorable.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton sent a written apology to a Cork radio station for shouting at a journalist that he was “sick answering questions about the f***ing peace process”.
In 1998, then Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson was ripping up the framework document on TV. Who could have predicted then that, two decades later, he would lead the DUP?
Division within Ulster Unionism put former leader David Trimble under so much pressure that he was described as “frightened” in communications between leaders Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in April 1998.
From her very first walkabout in 1997 as the first female Secretary of State, the late Mo Mowlam made an impression, insisting she would take her first questions from women journalists.
Shortly after taking up the post, an Irish official expressed concern that the NIO was involved in a “focused, sustained and sinister” briefing campaign against her.
Mo, being Mo, ploughed on with her efforts to secure a peace agreement — despite suffering from a terminal brain tumour. She exuded enthusiasm, and ordinariness, whether kicking off her shoes and swinging her feet up during television interviews, or kissing children on the street.
We don’t have characters these days with the same human connection, who “tell it like it is”. Northern Ireland is in a better place now than during Mowlam’s tenure, though Stormont lacks the frisson it once had. With few exceptions, it suffers from personality drain and a lack of public trust. Most people would be unable to name any party’s full team of MLAs.
Hard working they may be; intriguing they are not.
And there is a danger in that. Every now and then, a threat to collapse the institutions emanates from one side or another. Our politicians don’t have the same gravitas — or the clout with maniacs who would like nothing better than to see Stormont fail.
A large number of MLAs were not in the position of carrying coffins in their constituencies, nor of remembering how atrocities like the Quinn murders pushed people to find the resolve to move — not just from the Drumcree dispute, but from their respective political silos.
We need to go back to the days of straight talking, and compromise, before our current political custodians squander the opportunity the public gave them in 1998.
Then, the idea of peace was fledgling. Now, those of us who remember those days appreciate just how important it is to hold on to.