THERE will be two significant anniversaries in Ireland this year. One will be celebrated by the great and the good, including former taoisigh, prime ministers and presidents, in a blaze of publicity. The other will pass almost unnoticed though the events they recall are intimately connected and greatly shaped the political landscape in which we live.
In the spring of 1798 the United Irishmen of counties Antrim and Down, led by Scottish Presbyterians, took destiny by the hand and launched an open revolt against an oppressive aristocratic regime responsible for a long campaign of torture and murder. It was directed at republicans who were inspired by the French and American revolutions. These bold idealists sought to achieve an independent Irish nation where Catholic, Protestant and dissenter could live and prosper together in a spirit of liberty and equality. The project was doomed from the start and ended in a bloodbath at the Battle of Ballynahinch on June 12. The surviving revolutionaries were hanged. Supporters were transported to Botany Bay or the Caribbean. The lucky ones escaped to America where they played an active role in the politics of the successful republic.
In the spring of 1998 the leaders of unionism and nationalism signed the Good Friday Agreement, a carefully constructed deal which would bring an end to long campaigns of violence waged by the Provisional Irish Republican Army and loyalist groups including the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association. The leaders of the two estranged communities agreed to share power in a new devolved administration, with certain safeguards, and work together to build a peaceful and prosperous society. The Irish republic abandoned its territorial claims to Northern Ireland and agreed that British citizens could retain their passports come what may. The British government confirmed it had no ‘selfish strategic interest’ in the North and that Irish citizens could have their passports and identity recognised.
The United Irish rebellion led directly to the Act of Union which deprived Ireland of a parliament and placed the governance of the country in the hands of a land owning elite. This sparked a century of violent resistance as British rule was inflicted upon the landless, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter alike. It culminated in the Anglo-Irish War and the Treaty of 1921 which imposed partition and drove a wedge between the Irish people. The volatile new northern statelet exploded in violence once more in 1969 but this time the citizens were at each other’s throats.
One of my favourite souvenirs from a lifetime in journalism is a framed copy of a press release which shuffled out of a fax machine at the Belfast Telegraph on October 21, 2003. It contained just three paragraphs. It was addressed to Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Michael McDowell, Minister for Justice in the Republic. It was signed by John de Chastelaine and Andrew Sens of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. It told of a third event in which IRA weapons had been put beyond use. It was written evidence that the Peace Process was a reality and the GFA was working, that good sense had broken its chains and a better future was possible for us all.
It is now 25 years old. Real progress has been frustrated by the big parties bickering over every issue and every penny and by external events such as Brexit. The Executive and Assembly it created has been in suspension three times and has not sat for more than a year in protest at what unionists see as an Irish Sea border with Britain caused by the European Union’s desire to protect its single market. It has not bridged the gulf between Orange and Green and there are some who simply will not accept it. They remain willing to commit murder for their beliefs. Detective John Caldwell lies gravely ill in hospital after New IRA terrorists shot him in front of his son at a sports event in February. But I still consider it to be an honest and honourable settlement. My grandchildren have grown up without conflict and I believe the deal remains their best hope for peace and progress.
Some leading unionist commentators believe the GFA has failed and fear a return to violence but I am more optimistic. There will always be those who believe killing their neighbours is the only way to achieve political goals but they have been marginalised and undermined by democracy and dialogue. The international community, especially in Europe and the United States, continues to show great generosity towards us all.
The prospect of a successful vote for Irish unity of any kind is far away, according to the latest opinion polls and direct rule is unacceptable to the vast majority. I think back to the brave visionaries of the United Irish rebellion. They were 200 years ahead of their time and prepared to pursue what was right though they faced fearful odds and savage retribution for their honest beliefs. The last people to be hanged, drawn and quartered were supporters of the United Irishmen including Robert Emmet who led another doomed rebellion in 1803. They deserve to be honoured as heroes in the struggle to free all humble folk from the slavery inflicted upon them by powerful and ruthless political elites.
For them there was no choice. Violence was the only option. But modern politics is the art of compromise, the ability to build bridges not ditches. We have a choice. When the great and the good have all said their piece about the anniversary of the GFA, Ireland will slip back down the international political agenda again. The future is not in the hands of these political figureheads. It is in our hands. We must make this contract work. Success will prove the finest memorial we can leave to the summer soldiers of 1798 and the 3,720 who died in the Troubles. It is the greatest gift we can bequeath to our grandchildren.