Northern Ireland History - Northern Ireland Troubles 1997-1999

Northern Ireland History 1997-1999

Northern Ireland Conflict 1997 - 1999

Stephen Restorick was killed by an IRA sniper, the last British soldier to die in the 1990s.  As a general election was about to take place in Britain, the attacks from the IRA continued and this included the abandonment of the famous steeplechase, The Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool due to a bomb hoax.  So too did the violence from the loyalist side where Robert Hamill was beaten and kicked to death in the town of Portadown.  Some three weeks after that an RUC man, Gregory Taylor was killed in a similar manner by loyalists.  A Catholic teenager, Bernadette Martin was shot as she slept at home with her Protestant boyfriend and so the violence continued.

The Conservative government were defeated in the British general election and they were replaced with Tony Blair and the new Labour Party.  Local council elections also saw significant changes in the voting patterns with nationalists gaining the most advantage.  A defining change took place with a weakening of the Conservative and Unionist vote and a change to labour and a nationalist vote.  After this election five of Northern Ireland’s eighteeen seats were now held by Nationalists and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein were both now MPs.  In Northern Ireland the Unionists also lost control of four councils, including Belfast City Council.  In particular Sinn Fein’s vote appeared to be growing with many voting for the first time, mainly due to the ongoing issues at Drumcree church.  It was evident that there was a clear movement of voters to Sinn Fein and that the marching of Orangemen and the actions by the RUC had shifted the nationalist mindset.

Tony Blair had been elected as British Prime Minister and most importantly with a huge majority in the British House of Commons.  This meant that he did not depend on any smaller parties to get legislation or policy through parliament and could therefore act on any policy he wished to pursue.  Blair chose to put Northern Ireland very high on his agenda and within weeks he visited Belfast and announced the direct opening of talks with Sinn Fein.  He also appointed the first female Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam.  She was known to be a direct talker and someone who had the common touch, and she certainly had a reputation for being blunt and getting the job done.

Despite talks commencing the IRA killed two RUC men who were on a foot patrol in Lurgan, a town close to where the Drumcree marches were.  As it was approaching the marching season, any chance of political resolution seemed ever more distant. Blair, although clearly annoyed and disappointed persisted and London and Dublin came to an agreement that Sinn Fein could enter talks without the pre-condition of decommissioning.  This was a high risk strategy and Sinn Fein was told that should there be an IRA ceasefire they would be permitted into talks. 

The main risk came from the Ulster Unionist Party in that they could also walk away from any proposed talks should this be the case.  The more hard line Unionist groups including Ian Paisley and his DUP party had already stated they would not be part of any such talks and so Blair’s move was to be a huge gamble.  The gamble however worked and the IRA did call a ceasefire, though it was treated with some suspicion as the bombs at Canary Wharf in London had demonstrated how quickly any ceasefire could quickly end.  David Trimble was now they key person and all attention switched to him.  Would he and his UUP agree to enter talks without any decommissioning haven taken place?  He had always made his stated objective that he would not so if he changed his mind it would require not only a change of policy but require him to take a huge political risk and be the subject of much criticism.  To the surprise of many he did agree having consulted widely and he entered the talks with the other smaller Unionist parties, many of whom were represented by ex-prisoners.  I remember watching David Trimble and the pressure placed on him by either side was tremendous.

The talks inched along without Ian Paisley as he had withdrawn his party and continued to warn people how dangerous these talks could be for the Unionist people.  Blair again visited Belfast to try and speed up the process and he shook hands with Gerry Adams, the first hand shake there had been between a British Prime Minister and a republican leader since the 1920s. 

This handshake may seem to many to be a very small thing but it was highly symbolic and caused much debate and discussion at the time.   In the background of all this there still remained some violence as the INLA and the LVF were not on ceasefire.  Mainly due to the Drumcree issue the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) had come to some prominence under the leadership of Billy Wright whose nickname was King Rat.  However this rise in fame also meant he was at high risk of being killed.  He was arrested by the RUC and imprisoned for intimidation and when he was in jail, he was murdered by an INLA prisoner who had somehow managed to have a gun smuggled into the prison.  This ensured that as it was on the 27th December that 1998 would begin with some type of continued violence.

1998 began with a wave of loyalist violence and many Catholic civillians were shot to avenge the killing of Billy Wright.  UDA prisoners being held in the Maze prison where Wright was shot withdrew their support for the peace process and to the shock of many; Mo Mowlam went to visit them inside the prison walls.  

Her unprecedented move did work though and they did renew their support for the process, though outside the killings continued.  Many people condemned Mo Mowlam for doing this but she was a determined woman and prepared to take risks to keep the process moving.  
These killings along with actions from both the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA ensured that Northern Ireland remained in a state of fear and wariness.  To increaase the tension the RUC announced that they believed the IRA and the UDA had been involved in some of the killings and as a result both the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and Sinn Fein were temporarily excluded from the peace talks.  In March 1998 LVF gunmen turned a machine gun onto a bar in the small village of Poyntzpass where two best friends where then killed.  One was a Catholic called Philip Allen and his best friend a Protestant called Damien Trainor.  Despite the attacks and the continuing violence, somehow the talks kept going inch by slow inch.

Unionists did develop relationships with both the Irish government and the nationalist SDLP but they did not formally talk with Sinn Fein.  Despite this and with the constant interjection of Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam coupled with the experinced negotiating skills of George Mitchell it somehow started to come together.  Mitchell had been appointed Chairman of the talks and was a close political friend of Bill Clinton.  On the 10th April 1998 an agreement was reached and is now known as the “Good Friday Agreement”.  

All households in Northern Ireland were sent a copy of this thirty page document and I have often wondered how many people have ever read it.This historical agreement was a complex and lengthy document but its single purpose was to convince all parties that their needs could be accomodated in a climate of peace and reconciliation.  In many ways it was similar to the Sunningdale Agrrement of 1973 and was an inclusive political document, but the main difference was that this agreement contained a complicated mix which would interlock all relationships, north, south, east and west.

The agreement did cater for the principle of self-determination so crucial to Sinn Fein but crucially it also included the principle of consent, in that nothing could or would change, unless the majority of people in N.Ireland wished it to be so.  Articles 2&3 of the Irish constitution were changed to remove the claim to the territory of N.Ireland and a new 108 member Assembly would be formed to which Westminster would devolve powers to.  

This new assembly would have a First Minister who would be a Unionist and a Deputy First Minister who would be a Nationalist, and it would be a joint post meaning that both would have to agree on important decisions. The actual rule for determining the First Minister position was the party who held the most seats and it was known at that time, it would be a Unionist and likely to be David Trimble. There would then be ten departmental ministries which would be allocated by party strength by an agreed formula and all of these would be protected by a number of safeguards, in that joint community support would be required to make any changes or to pass any policy decisions.

The Assembly would also be linked with London, Dublin, Scotland and Wales in a new constitutional architecture and a British-Irish council established to underpin and support this.  Various bodies would be set up to oversee policing, human rights, equality and also the controversial agreement of early prisoner release for paramilitaries on both sides of the political divide.  Paramilitaries that were represented also agreed to decommission over a two-year period.  There was a lot of information within the detailed document and also various gaps which would need to be looked at again in the future, but for many it was an historical agreement and offered at that time, a genuine sense of hope and a means of going forwards instead of looking backwards.

The Agreement now had to be ratified both north and south of the border and nationalists were clearly eager to do just that.  The difficulty would be in convincing the Unionist population in the North of Ireland.  David Trimble was being attacked by other hard line unionists such as Paisley and in fact from within his own party.  It was similar in many ways to the predicament of Terence O’Neill in the many years before him when he tried to convince the unionist popluation that some movement oon change was required.  

After the referendum the unionist support was around 50:50 and in N.Ireland as a whole 71 percent of people voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement with almost 100 per cent nationalist support.  South of the border the agreement was overwhelmingly supported though the actual turn out was much lower than in the North of Ireland.  The one key thing from all of this voting is that Unionism was completely split in two between those wanting progress through the agreement and those absolutely opposed to it, and led by Ian Paisley.  It had been a very close call but it was just enough to make progress.

When the elections took place in June a solid pro-agreement majority was elected and Trimble was elected as First Minister with Seamus Mallon of the SDLP as Deputy First Minister.  The euphoria of the Agreement and elections were short lived as the marching season was once again upon the people of N.Ireland and Drumcree loomed on the horizon once again.  As before the march was banned and as before up went the barricades and in scenes familiar to the population the rioting started once again.  It was yet again a time of very high tension and danger for the people of Northern Ireland.  The Orange Order came under a lot of criticism at that time for not doing enough or saying enough to stop the levels of violence that had spread throughout the country.

A petrol bombing incident in the early hours of the 12th July led to terrible tragedy.  Three small boys died when a loyalist petrol bomb was thrown into their house in the County Antrim town of Ballymoney.  The Quinn children had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father and now three dead children.  The disturbances at Drumcree which had dominated July in the country quickly petered out as news of this tragedy spread across the media.  There was great sadness and quietness across Northern Ireland with many now considering the futility of what had happened and more importantly why it had happened.  This event was tragic and I believe for once that despite the horrendous attrocities that people had witnessed in the past, the death of three small children was a huge cost to pay for the sake of a road in Portadown.  When you have children of your own and you realise how precious they are it strikes hom all the harder.

Like many things however this tragedy was followed a month later when the Real IRA planted a bomb in the centre of Omagh in County Tyrone on a busy shopping Saturday.  Twenty-nine people lay dead on the streets of Omagh blown apart by a 500 lb bomb.  To this day many consider this to be the single worse incident in The Troubles and a country once again mourned.  

Many were filled with despair and for some, filled with anger.  A misleading phone call had actually caused the police to direct shoppers towards the device rather than away from it and those killed by ts impact included Protestants, Catholics and two Spanish visitors.  Two unborn twins also lay dead in a mother’s womb and those that were killed included sons, fathers, daughters, mothers, grand-mothers, young and old.  Witnesses talked of parts of bodies floating in the street carried on their way to a gulley by a burst water pipe.  I was driving myself on a short weekend break in Galway had had driven close to Omagh earlier that morning.  When I heard and saw this on the news I was devastated.  I knew people who lived in Omagh and my first thoughts turned to them.  When I found out they had not been affected then my thoughts turned to the families now ripped apart by grief.

Not only were the local people shocked and the hardened people of Northern Ireland shocked but the world was shocked at the brutality of what had happened.  Tony Blair and the USA President Bill Clinton visited Omagh along with many other people and books of condolencies were opened and signed throughout the land.  I made my own signature at the City Hall in Belfast, more to send my condolences to the people of Omagh rather than in any hope this would be the last such act of inhumanity.

The following month brought more political activity with Trimble meeting Adams behind closed doors and as this was happening both David Trimble and John Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even after the loss of the three young lives in Ballymoney and the devestation of Omagh, the violence did not stop as the people moved into 1999.  Republicans in Armagh killed Eamon Collins who had at one time been an IRA member but had started to be critical of that organisation.  

A solicitor called Rosemary Nelson was killed by loyalists as she had represented nationalists and also been the legal representative for the Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road at the centre of the Drumcree dispute.  Political progress moved slowly as trust proved to be an issue.  Unionists had high on their agenda the issue of decommissioning, whereas nationalists wished to see political movement on other issues promising that decommissioning would surely follow.  

Despite the personal intervention of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoisach it was not proving possible to devolve any powers to the Assembly due to the stumbling block of decommissioning.  One major source of relief that year was however when the Orange Order decided on a peaceful protest about not being allowed to march at Drumcree rather than the widespeard disruption which had been caused in previous years.  There was a palpable sigh of relief across the silent mouths of the people of Northern Ireland that year.

Over the coming months may called into question the validity of the IRA ceasefire.  Mo Mowlam had come close to asserting the ceasefire was not for real when a man was shot in West Belfast and an attempt had been discovered to smuggle in arms from America.  Shortly after this Mowlam was recalled to Westminster and replaced by Peter Mandelson as Secretary of State.  Mowlam had not been happy about that decision and it was felt she was recalled as she tended to lean towards nationalism which had been made public by Trimble and other Unionists.  George Mitchell also returned at this time and some ten weeks later an Executive was formed when Trimble agreed to form a government despite not a single weapon having been decommissioned.  Under a mathematical formula known as the D’Hondt principle Sinn Fein would get two of the top ten seats at the Assembly and Martin McGuinness became the Education Minister.  Ian Paisley and his party did take their seats at the Assembly but refused to attend any meetings of the Executive.
Northern Ireland History in the period of 1997-1999 was a time of some confusion as we moved towards the new milennium and the hopes for peace.