Eighteen years ago today the Provisional IRA announced a ceasefire, followed not long after by the Combined Loyalist Military Command.
Eighteen years on and the wounds from five decades of violence and division run deep amid all the political progress that has been made.
This isn’t all that surprising as there is still segregation in our society, there is still sectarianism and not enough time has elapsed to blunt the memory of daily conflict and suffering.
In fact, it is normal.
It arguably took Spain at least 40 years to emerge from the shadow of the Civil War and General Franco.
It took the Irish Republic even longer to shake off the memories and break the political mould set by the Civil War.
As a debate on the past in recent months has demonstrated (not least on this website) republicans and loyalists, unionists, nationalists and others, the British and Irish have a long road to travel before Northern Ireland reconciles the competing narratives of its past and overcomes deep divisions and pain.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Progress has been made.
Power sharing, with the DUP and Sinn Fein in government together, is an achievement but there have been other important milestones too – not least the Queen’s laying of a wreath in Dublin for the republican dead during her phenomenally successful visit to the Irish Republic, First Minister Peter Robinson’s attendance at the Requiem Mass for Constable Ronan Kerr and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’s historic handshake with Queen Elizabeth at the Lyric Theatre in June.
Ultimately, though, the real success of the peace process will not be measured in gestures.
Real reconciliation must take place on the ground in the republican and loyalist communities that for decades have been sitting uncomfortably beside each other.
It will mean not just the dismantling of peace walls but the dismantling of the invisible walls that have prevented children of different faiths and backgrounds being educated together, playing together, growing up together.
It will mean respect for each others’ religious and political beliefs (or the right to have no religious faith at all), respect for each other’s identities and even their choice of football team.
It will mean those on all sides who engaged in violence respecting and acknowledging the hurt they inflicted on those who lost loved ones as a result of their actions and not diminishing each other’s loss.
Easier said than done.
But it will also mean healing the divisions within communities, understanding and addressing those who feel left behind by their respective political leaderships and offering them a stake in a better society.
There are, of course, people on the ground engaging in this vital work. But as the marching season has just demonstrated, Northern Ireland still has a considerable distance to go.
It is in this context that James Marsh’s brave thriller ‘Shadow Dancer’ has hit our cinema screens.
It is brave because films about Northern Ireland’s past tend to stir up old emotions and old prejudices.
Their grim subject matter tends to turn off audiences, generating very little in box office returns outside Northern Ireland and the movies’ directors tend to bear the brunt of critical hostility. Jim Sheridan, Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Terry George and Steve McQueen all bear scars.
But Marsh’s movie is also brave because he doesn’t succumb to Hollywood convention.
This isn’t ‘Patriot Games’, ‘The Devil’s Own’ or the frankly ludicrous ‘Blown Away’. It doesn’t pander to demands for high octane action sequences by casually playing fast and loose with the conflict.
As Marsh revealed in an interview on this website two months ago, ‘Shadow Dancer’ is more concerned with the human drama and the moral complexities that engulfed those caught up in the violence.
‘Shadow Dancer’ focusses on the story of a Provisional IRA member, Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) who as a child (Maria Laird) is racked with guilt after persuading her younger brother Sean (Ben Smyth) to go on an errand her father had asked her to do, only for the boy to be shot dead.
The movie fast forwards 20 years to 1993, with Colette, now a single mother, drifting through the London Underground with a handbag containing a bomb. It is a stunning sequence with little dialogue, playing out like a less melodramatic version of Alfred Hitchcock’s bus bomb sequence in ‘Sabotage’ but no less powerful.
The bomb doesn’t detonate and while Colette flees through the tunnels that run below London, she is arrested by British intelligence agents who take her to an MI5 operative, Mac (Clive Owen) who tries to recruit her by bombarding her with intimate information about her and her family.
Asking her to inform on the Provisional IRA cell led by her brothers Gerry (Aiden Gillen) and Connor (Domhnall Gleeson), Mac breaks through her resilience by warning her of the catastrophic impact that a prison sentence for her in England will have on her son.
Colette returns to her family home, her son and her stoical mother (Brid Brennan) but her apparent good fortune in avoiding arrest soon attracts the interest of a dogged Provisional IRA interrogator, Kevin Mulville (David Wilmot) who begins to suspect there’s an informer in the ranks.
What unfolds in ITN Political Correspondent Tom Bradby’s deft screenplay is a complex game involving several cats and several mice. It is a world where Provisional IRA members look over their shoulders at the security services and their comrades and where British agents hide key pieces of information from each other.
In the anchor role of Colette, Andrea Riseborough dominates the movie with her angst ridden performance and her blood red trenchcoat.
Clive Owen also convinces as Mac, all swagger at the beginning but then rocked as the movie unfolds as he realises he’s only a bit part player in the intelligence game steered by Gillian Anderson’s ice cold Kate Fletcher.
Domhnall Gleeson also impresses, turning in a subtle performance as the softer of Colette’s brothers and there is a dependable supporting turn from Aiden Gillen as her other bitter brother, Gerry.
David Wilmot’s unsettling portrayal of Mulville and Brid Brennan’s performance as Colettte’s mother will linger long in the memory but there are strong supporting performances too from Martin McCann as an IRA gunman, Michael McElhatton as a Sinn Fein leader and Stuart Graham as an RUC ally of Mac.
Students of the Troubles will no doubt recognise the real life inspiration for at least one sequence where Connor’s Provisional IRA unit attempts to gun down a RUC inspector in east Belfast. There is no doubt Bradby drew a lot from his experiences in Belfast as ITN’s Ireland correspondent.
However Marsh’s film is not primarily interested in real life parallels and while tension in the mainstream Republican Movement over the leadership’s moves away from violence rears its head, the director studiously downgrades the politics and remains doggedly focussed on the human tragedy unfolding among his characters.
In truth, the fact that ‘Shadow Dancer’ is set in Northern Ireland seems almost incidental.
It could just as easily be about the ethical dilemmas for informers (and their handlers) within a Mafia crime family or a fanatical Muslim terror group.
In many ways, the simmering pot boiling pace of Marsh’s thriller makes it the perfect companion piece to Tomas Alfredson’s recent adaptation of John Le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.
Not only do both films share the presence of Stuart Graham but the drab interiors of the McVeigh family home and the grim housing estate in which they live and the bland British intelligence offices Mac inhabits are reminiscent of the glum sets which were so striking in Alfredson’s movie.
Ron Hardy’s nervy hand held cinematography and the heightened sound effects further ratchet up the tension in Marsh’s movie until its head spinning finale.
After a summer of muscular superheroes and explosive action, the meticulous approach of ‘Shadow Dancer’ provides a welcome respite from the instant violence and thrills of Batman, Bourne and the Black Widow.
It deserves a decent showing at the box office.
Whether audiences are ready to embrace this challenging movie set in Northern Ireland’s past may well be a measure of how far we have come.