Monday 11 December 2017

The killing has stopped but North's fragile peace remains

A mural espousing inclusiveness on a house in Belfast yesterday.
A mural espousing inclusiveness on a house in Belfast yesterday.
Charlene Logue from Lifford and Theresa Stewart from Strabane.
John Downing

John Downing

SEAN MacDermott was in bed asleep when they came for him. The gang had smashed the door, dragged him from bed and taped up his wrists and ankles.

Hours later his body was found in a car - he had been shot twice in the head.

And just hours after that murder, the IRA leadership announced that "a complete cessation" would take effect from midnight. It was August 31, 1994, and the beginning of a new, and faltering era of "armed peace" in Northern Ireland.

Sean MacDermott was a Catholic murdered in Antrim town by so-called loyalists from the UVF. He was 37-years-old and due to be married the following month. His story is one of 3,665 tales of misery, grief and pointless, murderous brutality over three decades.

By late August 1994, most of us across Ireland had learned to tune out atrocity details. It required something the terrorists called "a spectacular" to pique public curiosity, and timing, more than anything else, attracted attention to this murder.

In November 1994, Mr MacDermott's bereaved fiancee received a special "People of the Year" award in Dublin along with the widow of Trelford Withers, a butcher and part-time Royal Irish Regiment soldier, shot by the IRA in his own shop weeks earlier on August 8, 1994.

Mr Withers was the last IRA murder victim before the ceasefire but others would follow in the ensuing years up to 2001. Lest we ever forget, the IRA were the biggest killers in this late 20th Century conflict in Ireland. They killed 1,778 people, or almost half the total, and one-third of IRA victims were civilians.

It took six more weeks, and one more loyalist murder of a nationalist, before the Combined Loyalist Military Command announced its "cessation of operational hostilities" on October 13, 1994.

In autumn 1994 there was a very definite view that something "new and exciting" had happened, though few could really say quite what it was.

There was jubilation among some Northern nationalists, who sensed some considerable gains in the offing. Relief among Loyalists was tinged with fears of a "secret sell-out by London to the IRA".

In the Republic, there was widespread hope that some lasting solution could now be worked out. In London there was extreme caution with questions about the permanence of the ceasefire and the need for the IRA to demonstrably decommission its arsenal.

For the next 18 months, republican and loyalists guns were quieter, but not entirely silent. Progress in peace talks was hard to discern. The demand for IRA decommissioning became an absolute roadblock to Sinn Fein's involvement in all-party talks.

Then, at 6pm on February 9, 1996, the IRA announced the end of its ceasefire. And one hour later it exploded a massive bomb at Canary Wharf in London, which killed two newspaper sellers, Inan Ul-haq Bahir and John Jeffers. It took another 15 months to restore the IRA ceasefire and three more years of painstaking negotiations to deliver the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

It took a further seven years, until September 2007, to achieve verified IRA decommissioning. On the fringes, the so-called "republican dissidents" posed recurring threats and gave us the sickening horror of the Omagh bombing in August 1998, which killed 29 people and wounded 220 others, and other lesser atrocities.

Overall, there is no doubt that much was achieved through the peace process and little, if any of it, would have happened without the first step in the IRA ceasefire of August 31, 1994. But it is also clear that progress has been painfully slow and there are grounds for arguing that the solution has institutionalised divisions between unionists and nationalists.

Failure to even properly discuss problems about flags and marches are emblematic of this. The process has so far under-achieved as the hoped-for harvest of economic growth has been slow to materialise and social integration has struggled to make headway.

Almost seven years after that original IRA ceasefire, in July 2001, in conversation with a senior Dublin government official about the chronic problems blighting the Northern Ireland peace effort, this writer asked: "Will we be talking seven or even 17 years from now about yet another stumbling block in the North's peace effort?"

The answer came quickly and with certainty: "That is quite likely. But hopefully we won't be talking about them killing one another ever again." That conversation in 2001 could have taken place yesterday.

In sum, over the past 20 years, political leaders and government officials in Belfast, Dublin, London, Washington and elsewhere, have been managing an absence of killing - a kind of prolonged, though very welcome, ceasefire in the North which has only gradually appeared permanent and often looked fragile.

Those high-powered politicians and officials in three capitals are all still involved in a quest for true peace. And 20 years on also, the building foreman Sean MacDermott is long forgotten by all save those who loved him.

Irish Independent

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