When a young BBC journalist arrived in Belfast in 1986, the physical symbols of the sectarian conflict known as the Troubles were immediately apparent. “As I walked from my digs to the BBC office for the first time, I saw a police patrol in front of me, but not the type I recognised,” recalls former BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Devenport, who would go on to become the broadcaster’s political editor for Northern Ireland. “The patrol was accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, including a tail gunner who kept me in his sights all the way down the road. Police stations looked like fortified military barracks, peace walls separated areas of Belfast, huge murals depicted paramilitary figures and kerb stones were painted in the colours of flags favoured by either republicans or loyalists.”
While some of the visceral symbols remain today, they are a reminder of the acute polarisation that affected communities in Northern Ireland before the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. Since the late 1960s, violence, shootings and bombings had become a grim fact of life in Northern Ireland. Over the course of 20 years, ceasefires had been called between paramilitary groups on both the nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist sides, power-sharing agreements had been attempted, and peace movements had been galvanised by brave souls within divided communities. None, though, had stuck, and by the late 1980s, tensions had once more erupted, creating a sense of war-weariness for people on the ground.
For Devenport, it was an all-consuming job to ensure he was covering the litany of incidents with compassion and impartiality: “You could never switch your bleeper off because things were happening on a daily basis in Northern Ireland, even if the network audiences over in England had switched off to an extent to the intensity of the Troubles. As a BBC reporter, you couldn’t really win. Some communities thought you were on the side of the British government, others that the BBC was part of a conspiracy to sell out the loyalists. So, you just had to stick to the facts, try to discern what was going on and appreciate how complex the situation was.” Perhaps one of the most unsettling parts of the job was to knock on the doors of families who had lost loved ones in the Troubles, but the response often surprised the reporter. “They would often be welcoming to a journalist because they wanted to make sure their relatives weren’t forgotten,” notes Devenport.
Appetite for Change
With the infiltration of some paramilitary groups by security forces, and a new resolve growing both within Northern Ireland and beyond, there was a cautious sense by the early 1990s that the road to more peaceful circumstances might – just might – be possible. Talks between John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams were progressing about an alternative way forward, not least because the Irish republicans and British Army were locked in a kind of stalemate. At the same time, discreet moves by the British government and Irish politicians based in the United States were pushing leaders and parties in Northern Ireland to move from their entrenched positions. “It took courage – different kinds, for sure, but courage nonetheless – for leaders to move forward and engage with the other side,” notes Devenport. “Hume faced an awful lot of criticism for talking to Adams, particularly from people in the unionist community who thought he was engaging with people beyond the pale, while Adams was seen to be backing down from a maximalist position, which would have opened him up to accusations of treachery. The risks were real and personal.”
A conditional ceasefire announced by the Provisional IRA in 1994 subsequently broke down two years later through more violence in Northern Ireland and bombings in London and Manchester. “I think people by this time approached the idea of peace with a mix of hope and cynicism,” says Devenport. “Yes, people had great hope for a way of life that could be changed for the better. However, there was a real mix of emotion on the ground, with some loyalists objecting to the direction the peace process was taking and some dissident republicans effectively wanting to blow peace out of the water. There were reservoirs of resentment that still needed unravelling.”
Building Blocks to a New Agreement
Signed between the British prime minister of the time John Major and Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 had paved the way for a renewed chapter in Irish-Anglo relations. Later on, in 1997, a new IRA ceasefire was holding and while loyalists were sceptical about the direction of travel, the space suddenly cleared for revived peace negotiations to take place. Picking up the story, Devenport explains: “That year, we had the elections of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern – two energetic prime ministers for Britain and Ireland at the early stage of their careers. And they came along and really gripped the peace process. Here we had a British prime minister who was willing to spend the time and effort to be across the detail. It was extremely important he showed the commitment, effort and intellectual rigour to get across the minutiae of the entrenched positions of the parties in Northern Ireland – and work out imaginative ways to get around some of the old deadlock.”
As talks that led to agreement over the GFA picked up, Ahern and Blair lost two of the ten parties who had been selected to have a seat at the negotiations, but eight, including David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists, hung in there. As the framework of a new agreement emerged, parts of which were built on well-established ideas of power-sharing, Hume borrowed inspiration from the European Union to explore ways in which borders could become less intrusive. Essential to getting the IRA on side was the idea of having two referendums held on each side of the border to endorse the agreement – a way for the people to determine their own future. “Blair came over several times to try and rouse people to vote yes,” recalls Devenport. “Of course, the biggest issue was prisoner releases and that did play into the hands of the ‘no’ camp. On the eve of the actual vote, we had a big concert featuring U2 and Ash, who played free to sixth-formers, during which everyone probably remembers Bono bringing Hume and Trimble onstage to raise their hands in unity. That became a defining image and I think persuaded a few hesitant voters to opt for yes. It was pretty exciting – people knew history was being made.”
With clear majorities voting “yes” in both nationalist and unionist communities, the agreement was endorsed. But for Devenport, the act of endorsement, which took place on 10 April 1998, and the subsequent referendums, did not signify the end to his rollercoaster ride of a job reporting on events in Northern Ireland. Immediately, people were tipped into the campaign for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Sectarian violence then broke out on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, followed by the horror of the Omagh bombing in the summer. Peace was to be hard-won and not without continuing tragedy.
An Imperfect Resolution but a Resolution Nonetheless
“The GFA did in the end resolve the civil war known as the Troubles,” says Devenport, reflecting on the past 25 years. “It wasn’t perfect because it didn’t end all politically motivated violence, but it certainly reduced the daily level of casualties. There are hundreds of people walking around today who would not be otherwise. The agreement also fortified the ceasefires of the 1990s to make them more permanent because they wouldn’t have lasted without a political agreement. Northern Ireland is a better place today than it was prior to 1998, something that should never be underestimated.”
While issues such as economic inactivity and low wage rates continue to hamper the population, there is no doubt that peace has brought new possibilities. Industries such as film, cybersecurity and financial tech have sprung up while GDP per capita has doubled and tourism has developed, with the number of overseas visitors more than doubling.
Still, the question of a border poll continues to swirl while communities pull in different directions for the future, some preferring that Northern Ireland functions better as part of the United Kingdom, others looking forward to a united Ireland. Steady governance has not been achieved, with constitutional disagreements preventing the GFA’s full implementation. And into the mix has emerged a growing group of people – many members of the Alliance Party – in the centre ground who stand together in not wanting to affiliate in the traditional way, preferring instead that politics should focus on universal issues such as climate and the cost of living.
“When I think about my children and what their friends are interested in, they’re much more focused on conversations around gender, identity, the economy, the environment and foreign affairs than nationalism or unionism,” says Devenport, speaking from his home in Northern Ireland. “So, one would hope that political discussions can be pushed in those directions rather than more rallying around the flag. From time to time, when there is a resurgence of violence, leaders do stand together, but I think voters would prefer it if they did that more often. We need leaders who are prepared to take pragmatic decisions and overcome the obstacles, without becoming further entrenched in certain positions. Let’s hope for some flexible thinking. There are still some pretty big decisions ahead and you never know what lies around the corner.”