Peace in the Troubles

The conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century is known as the Troubles. Over 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

The path to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was not an easy one, but a fragile peace has held ever since. There were many previous attempts to find a lasting settlement, all of which ended in failure.

Photo: Copies of the Good Friday Agreement, 11 April 1998 (Associated Press)

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The Troubles

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Martina Purdy: Political Correspondant, BBC Northern Ireland

Some would argue the fight for peace started as soon as the Troubles began. Such is the nature of Northern Ireland, born out of bloodshed, that there is no agreement about when precisely peace gave way to conflict, or conflict to peace.

Civil rights

Some pinpoint the start of the conflict to 5 October 1968, when a civil rights march in Londonderry ended in violence. It's perhaps not surprising that the Troubles began in a place whose very name has been bitterly disputed by both sides: Derry for Irish nationalists, Londonderry for British unionists.

Peaceful reform had been the aim of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, inspired by the African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Its 'five demands' included an end to discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing.

The 5 October march had been banned and images of the mainly nationalist demonstrators being beaten by police were beamed around the world, drawing widespread condemnation. The unionist government in Northern Ireland began to grant reforms. This was too little too late for many nationalists and too much too soon for many unionists.

British intervention

By 1969, peaceful protest had given way to street violence fuelled by bitter sectarian divisions. The British Army was brought in to quell the disorder, but conflict escalated and soon the armed groups and political parties who would do battle, violently and verbally, for decades to come, were born.

Cries for peace came in waves of revulsion at the violence, but events made opportunities for peace more difficult. Even so, no one foresaw the Troubles lasting so long. The early years were the bloodiest period, marked by death and destruction, and the fall of the unionist-dominated parliament to be replaced by 'direct rule' by the British government in London.

In 1972, the government made an early bid for peace with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). The 'Provisionals' were routinely referred to as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) after a split from the 'Officials' in 1969. IRA leaders were secretly flown to London for talks, but their demands for a new Irish republic were not realistic and were rejected.

Power-sharing proposal

In 1973, the promise of peace came in a power-sharing deal hammered out by unionists, nationalists and others at Sunningdale in Berkshire, England. The agreement involved a formal link with the Republic of Ireland through a Council of Ministers. This "Irish dimension" was too much for the loyalists but didn't go far enough for republicans. The agreement soon collapsed amid paramilitary violence and the chaos of the Ulster Workers' Council (UWC) strike, which had brought Northern Ireland to a standstill.

A subsequent IRA truce in 1975 floundered on mistrust and unrealistic expectations. In an attempt to keep the peace, the government pursued a tough security policy, but the violence continued.

Peace People

Hope seemed lost when in 1976, communities in Northern Ireland were shocked by a tragic event in West Belfast. Three children were killed and their mother injured by a speeding car. The driver was an IRA man who had been fatally wounded in a chase by the British Army. The children's aunt made an impassioned plea for peace and a groundswell of support led to the formation of a group called the Peace People.

Winning attention at home and broad, they marched for peace in Belfast and other towns. Ten thousand people gathered in London's Trafalgar Square to hear folk singer Joan Baez sing "We Shall Overcome". In the end, the desire for peace was overcome by anger, fear and hatred. The Peace People did win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, but their reputation diminished over rows about the money.

A deeply divided Northern Ireland was not, it seemed, ready for peace. The Peace People had tapped into a desire for peace, a desire that would again be articulated in the 1980s by rallies led by the trade union movement. But their simple message was no match for the complexities of the conflict.

What was peace without justice and equality? What represented equality? How could you achieve peace when people couldn't agree on the causes of the conflict?

In simple terms, unionists believed the IRA was the problem, and peace would be restored if it went away. For nationalists and republicans, the problem was British rule and unionist failure to compromise and share power on equal terms.

Anglo-Irish Agreement

In 1985, the British and Irish governments tried to impose their own settlement through the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The treaty gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland affairs, under-pinned by the principle that a united Ireland would only become possible with the consent of the people.

Unionists were not reassured by this "consent principle" and felt betrayed. Nationalists welcomed the deal and even hard-line republicans were privately intrigued by the Irish dimension in a potential settlement. In some ways, the deal sowed the seeds of peaceful political consensus. Unionists recognised that saying "no" would not block change. Nationalists saw hope that change was possible.

Extreme to mainstream

By the late 1980s, even leaders of republican and loyalist paramilitaries were reconsidering their strategies. The IRA's political wing, Sinn Féin, had undergone significant changes and was contesting elections as part of a two-stranded republican plan embracing both "the armalite and the ballot box". This new-found electoral success for Sinn Féin was, however, continually stunted by IRA violence as the majority of nationalist votes remained with the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Behind the scenes, Roman Catholic clergymen were facilitating dialogue between the SDLP leader John Hume and the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams about how to end the violence and achieve a political settlement. Significantly there was also a secret back channel between the British government and the IRA.

Peace process

By 1993, the British and Irish governments had signed the Downing Street Declaration, setting out a series of principles on how a settlement could be achieved. It had something for everyone. Northern Ireland's status was dependent on the will of the people, while there was also recognition that the Irish people as a whole had the right to a negotiated settlement. Unionists were nervous, but republicans saw a political path towards compromise involving an all-Ireland dimension.

In August 1994, to the surprise of many, the IRA called a ceasefire. Loyalist paramilitary groups - the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) - followed suit in October of that year.

Internationally, Irish American politicians in Washington used their influence with US President Bill Clinton, who was keen to encourage peace. Clinton hosted an economic conference in Washington, and made an influential visit to Belfast in 1995, but the IRA ceasefire broke down in 1996 over the failure to make progress through talks. It took another year for the ceasefire to be restored, paving the way for the most inclusive talks ever held on Northern Ireland’s future. These talks were chaired by Clinton's ally, US senator George Mitchell.

Good Friday Agreement

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It was very similar to the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 and was branded "Sunningdale for slow learners" by SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon. Nevertheless, an overwhelming desire for peace across the political community, combined with a willingness to compromise, saw the return of self-government to Northern Ireland through the adoption of a power-sharing Executive.

The political institutions set out in the Good Friday Agreement still stand, albeit interrupted by another long spell of direct rule from London and the amendments of the St Andrews Agreement of 2006. But as a direct result of the events of Easter 1998, a fragile peace still holds in Northern Ireland.

Martina Purdy was writing in February 2013