The next stretch to save the politics – by Brian Rowan

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“Sometimes when you’re living through history you don’t see it.”

The words above were spoken by the former RTE correspondent Charlie Bird at a Feile an Phobail event last night.

We were discussing the ceasefires of 1994 – first the statement from the IRA and then the response from the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

Later, I will explain how the sequence could have been different.


Ceasefire statements 1994


Bird was part of a panel including myself and Eamonn Mallie – at an event chaired by the UTV journalist Judith Hill in which we were asked to think back and look forward.

The audience filled every seat in the room, among them people better placed to describe the IRA thinking and journey to ceasefire and beyond.

But their voices weren’t heard.

There is not yet a process that allows them to speak openly and candidly about that period and, so, they listen in silence.

Mallie highlighted their presence in the room in response to a question from the former Presbyterian Moderator John Dunlop, who asked: “Why did the IRA call the ceasefire?”

What he got was an observer’s assessment – not the thinking and words from those best placed to answer.

The ceasefires were moments in history, not yet fully explored or understood and, for all that has happened since, we constantly travel back in time.

Just look at the political logjam – seen and heard in the tug-of-war over what can happen or not happen on the Maze/Long Kesh prison site.

In 1994 the loyalists were considering announcing their ceasefire first – and set out their terms in a private document passed to the then Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames.


Loyalist ceasefire terms outlined in document March 1994

Loyalist ceasefire terms outlined in document March 1994


Killings by the INLA and the IRA derailed that prospect or possibility.

Among those targeted were Joe Bratty and Raymond Elder remembered in a 20th anniversary march in Belfast just a few days ago.

Then, at the weekend, republicans held their Hunger Strike Commemoration at Derrylin in County Fermanagh.

In this remembering by loyalists and republicans there are also reminders of the wars before the peace and the killing and hurt of the pre-ceasefire period.

Commemoration, remembering, the past, the absence of some process to talk this out and through – these are the things and the mud that are holding politics in yesterday and stopping it from getting to tomorrow.

Judith Hill, just 13 when the ceasefires were announced, described every-day news as still being “a negotiation between the past and the future” – that in an evolving journey there is still this “working out of what this peace thing is”.

If we don’t work out the past, if we don’t work out how to stop hurting others in acts of remembrance, then the politics will remain stuck and the tug-of-war will continue with the knot getting tighter.

And this is what I had in mind when I used these comments to close Monday’s event:

“I think Trimble wanted this to work. I think Robinson wants this to work. I believe Paisley wanted it to work.

“And, I think, that asks of republicans – and, I know, some people might think this is outrageous – it asks them to think ‘is there another step we can take’.

“Republicans are in a very strong position politically north and south at this stage.

“Unionism is feeling vulnerable and, I think, there are occasions such as the period we’re in, when republicans still need to think about what they are doing and about what they could do to convince senior unionists and loyalists that they are genuinely serious about a peace process, about a shared future and about shared space.”

I wasn’t thinking about welfare cuts or the north Belfast march standoff but, rather, about a big initiative on the past and remembering – about how it is done or not done.

And, of course, this is not just about republicans, but many others.

In 1994, the IRA and the CLMC made a path for others and, to quote the words of someone in the audience last night “the path is not straight”.

At times it leads to the brick walls.

So, there is a choice – to be fatalistic about the inevitability of political failure or to find a new way of making it work.

Twenty years ago, as we “lived through history”, a new way was found.

Leaders stretched themselves, and that is today’s challenge – the next step and who will take it first.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. Barry Fennell on

    The path is not and hasn’t been straight but we are where we are and much more needs to be done. The period from 1994 to 2004 is particularly significant and some of that will and I suppose energy has disappeared at present. Before there were major, enhanced and groundbreaking gestures and proposals from the republican movement designed to stimulate and steer change – it seems that these failed to impress unionists at the time. That mistrust still permeates the present but it shouldn’t infect progress. The last few months have been difficult and volatile with attitudes it would appear hardening – this is what to me is worrying.
    Collective and joint actions have been seriously lacking and in order to take the next step they (both Sinn Fein and the DUP) have not just to stretch but to get real and get working. For genuine and meaningful conflict transformation to take effect or to have a chance both parties must surely recognise that progressive steps, acceptance and recognition of difference, the willingness to build relationships, openness and trust, risks for change must be accepted and taken with peacebuilding. They cannot continue to dictate, disrupt and stall over issues like the past especially when we are trying to build for all our futures – the doing is always the difficulty here but come on. The moment for change is long overdue.

    • Barry – some can make change happen quicker than others. Then we have those who don’t want change. One shouldn’t wait for the other. If you run with the slowest then you finish last.

  2. I do not buy into the idea that dealing with the past is necessary for progress into the future. There are multiple narratives covering what happened since 1969 and before which are all declared valid depending on the lens through which they are viewed. The past cannot be owned, reconciled and overseen by our political parties, which, at best , speak electorally for about half the population of NI who could vote if they had a choice as to who governed them.

    The inability to have a veto on the interpretation of the past by any side or group means that ‘dealing with the past’ (perhaps the most insulting phrase in general use where victims are concerned), cannot be wrapped up in yet another neat process.
    I agree that Republicans are in a strong position politically across the island of Ireland, but don’t believe that there is any republican strategy or intention to make NI work politically outside of SF’s own political, cultural and ideological stance. Their ideological stance to education, the economy, welfare reform , the Maze and the whole equality agenda does not require any bold gestures. Similarly why provide a bold gesture around hunger strike commemorations when appeasing Unionism is not on their radar? Why should it be? What concessions are they looking for from political Unionism that are holding back their own aims?

    Equally the clear move to the right by political Unionism and their now open ambivalence to paramilitary support over the flags and parades issue shows no sign of any watering down of commitment to their own political, cultural, religious or ideological position.

    We are fixated with process in NI and still believe the GFA shows the way. The question of why the IRA called a ceasefire in 1994 as commentators on Slugger suggest, may be worthy of a lot more discussion and analysis. Was that a bold gesture or a calculated pragmatic choice? Twenty years on this is entirely academic; fodder for the massed ranks of political commentators in NI.

    Every political process has, or should have, converging strands – the machinery of the process itself and the mindset and openness of spirit to make it work. We have long been good at the former but dismal at the latter. The outworking of our peace process must always be on selfish terms.

    We are down to the wire now on the issues that require openness of spirit; parades flags and finding some closure on the past. It is surprising that it has taken so long to get here. So we can have Haass or Haass revisited or something new or anything you like by way of a new process on these issues, but you will not change the mindsets which sit behind them without conceding some kind of defeat or betrayal on both sides. The fact that electoral power is closely wedded to maintaining these mindsets and pandering to them is an important factor in keeping up the vote and maintaining our undemocratic system.

    Making a grand gesture needs reciprocation to work and so often here a gesture is interpreted as a concession to be pocketed and an invitation to ask for more.

    The net effect for ordinary people is that the war between republican and political unionist ideology is crippling the economy and affecting every aspect of life. The poor are getting poorer and the number of NEETS is growing. Alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence are all on the rise. We have an education system in disarray, a health service on its knees, and an economy which seems to lurch from one sports event to another. Where is the equality agenda in the midst of that?

    Our own brand of christian fundamentalism is seeping into public policy; we are being told by a political class who is worthy of giving blood, or what a politically controlled theatre should show , not on the basis of rational policy but religious belief.

    The same ideological fundamentalism over welfare reform and the failure to live within our means generally is having a serious detrimental impact on public services affecting everyone. Regard, (it has never reached the level of respect) for politicians, has never been lower. Political grandstanding means that Northern Ireland is not making progress; it is slowly winding down.

    The boldest gesture of all would be for both Governments to pull the rug from under this sham and as David Ford suggests, reboot with a new operating system. Perhaps in the space provided rather than being interpreted as a vacuum, it would provide the opportunity for new bolder political voices and new ideas to come forward, more wedded to developing an inclusive future than being weighed down by the baggage and outdated ideologies of the past.

    • Thanks again for your contribution. Maybe we need to find out if people are serious. We don’t have partnership government. Would an initiative unlock things – remove excuses, create new momentum?
      I don’t know, but we need to know. Maybe we’re not far away from the new operating system and reboot you refer to. More and more I’m hearing that things are untenable and unsustainable. It’s not working and it might be unworkable. Initiatives, of course, are about timing and it may well be that a call is made that nothing can dig Stormont out of the mud and the mess.

  3. Part of our present problem is the fact that unionism doesn’t understand the word ‘reciprocity’.
    Since the start of our ‘peace’ process gestures to improve our situation have come from the republican/nationalist side and have been met with ‘that’s the least they could do’ or ‘that’s only the first step’, but never in the 20 years have we had a magnanimous gesture from the unionist side.
    It seems at last that Sinn Fein have decided not to be walked over any more in the name of peace. They have decided to observe the law of physics: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ which is bringing NI to a stalemate situation.
    And the only logical outcome is the gradual collapse of our situation.
    Cameron and Kenny, despite their obvious reluctance to become involved again, will be forced to do so, and as the republican/nationalist vote is increasing year by year, they see no need to rush into a quick deal, believing that, the stronger their vote the better their political outcome.
    So I am afraid I hold out no hope for a quick fix – get ready for the long haul.

  4. Brian, firstly I would like to commend Eamonn, Charlie and yourself on a fascinating insight into the 1994 ceasefires. However, I would like to make a few points about the following statement you made at the event:

    “Unionism is feeling vulnerable and, I think, there are occasions such as the period we’re in, when republicans still need to think about what they are doing and about what they could do to convince senior unionists and loyalists that they are genuinely serious about a peace process, about a shared future and about shared space.”

    I do agree Unionists are in a vulnerable position but I believe this has been their own doing. Republicans have negotiated and compromised are far as they possible could bringing along with them their electorate. Precondition after pre condition Republicans have risen above and delivered. The same cannot be said of Unionism. Do you believe republicans are serious about the peace process? Would you agree they have delivered and tried moving the North from a period of conflict to reconciliation? Have unionists and loyalists delivered? I listened to Martin McGuinness last week and his commitment to the Peace process and building a shared future was so apparent. As he rightly said, you don’t often hear unionists commending the peace process and as far as I see, it’s not too often you see them pushing it forward. Haass was an opportunity to test how far unionism has come and how serious they are about the Peace Process and building a shared future. They failed to deliver. Regardless of what Republicans do, it will never be enough for Unionists. The difference is Sinn Fein lead their electorate, Unionists chase their electorate – it’s this chasing that has radicalised Unionism. This game of looking and walking backwards ignoring what is in front has stagnated the peace process and in effected stalled our government. The only people who can move Unionism is a progressive element with their society – i am aware there are many disenfranchised and disenchanted unionists who want progress and are frustrated with their political representatives.

    • My comments were not about questioning commitment to peace process. I know how big initiatives have worked in the past and how difficult they were to deliver and not for one minute would I dismiss or downplay any of that. What I don’t know is whether anything would work in current situation. I knew my comments would be controversial, but these conversations/events aren’t meant to be cosy. They give us all something to think about. There is a growing commentary that the situation at Stormont cannot be sustained – that it is untenable. Maybe it is beyond rescue. We should know in a few months.

      • Thanks for reply Brian – I do agree things at Stormont are looking untenable. I genuinely believe damage beyond repair is the state of play we are now entering. Again in relation to your initial comment, I genuinely cannot see how Republicans could offer much more. At the Hunger strike commemoration on Sunday, Gerry Adams talked about making friends with “our unionist neighbours,” and moving forward with Unionists.” This seems to be the Republicans agenda and vision. I’ve yet to hear political unionism make any such remark about Nationalism. They lack vision and have just become a reactionary force. The mindset of Unionism 100 years ago is slowly creeping back into our society. Reactionary politics does not work. I made a point recently on a blog about David Ervine and you touched on that the other night. Unionism is missing David Irvine. Without his influence political unionism has remained leaderless with no future blue print. Unionism still see nationalists / republicans as their enemy, where they should be embracing them and working towards a common shared goal of delivering good government. I believe Unionism must make the next move (although I know realistically they won’t) they must stretch beyond their limitations and illustrate their commitment to the Peace Process and building a shared future. Constantly bringing up the past will never build a future. I attended a debate last week and listened to Colin Parry whose son Tim was killed by an IRA bomb. Colin was an inspiration , a beacon of hope for this place. Yet he admitted having little contact with political unionism – maybe a starting point for political unionism is to engage with people like Colin and listen to their story and their journey towards reconciliation. As the political vacuum fills by the day, I somewhat agree with your assertion that growing commentary states Stormont cannot be sustained under the currently political climate.

        • Thank you for your contributions. I suppose the real question is this – if this set of leaders can’t make it work then who can? Plan B has sneaked into conversations again.

          • Good question. It would be a pity if this group of politicians couldn’t make it work. It has been a long winding road, at times the process looked hopeless and hope was found, it looked lifeless and life was found. Bigger hurdles have been overcome and it is disheartening that issues such a flags and parading are hindering progress. The only way we will know is if international help becomes involved and gives the “stalled” process that push to get it going again. Then again being devil’s advocate, the question remains, is it stalled or dead?

      • Barney
        “We should know in a few months.”
        I agree. The next monitoring round rather than parades flags and the past could be the catalyst. Our public services are at a tipping point. Health is overspent by £113m. It requested £160m and got a conditional £20m. Health costs are rising at 6% pa. All Departments, are suffering (yes, even education) and that is now impacting on the population. Rather than dire warnings of the consequences of not getting our financial house in order the impact is now real in people’s lives in terms of a reduced level of services,particularly in health and social care. A failure to deal with the financial consequences of the welfare impasse in October could well see the collective patience of people finally run out. Certainly I cannot recall a period where the collective disdain for our political class has ever been higher. The problem is that for our politicians climbing a mountain for your principles and beliefs, whether on parades and welfare reform is one thing. The descent from a precarious summit can sometimes be twice as difficult. They need to find that route if Stormont is to succeed. Personally I hope they don’t.
        I often wonder if someone put up a ‘Time to go’ Facebook page just what the response would be…

  5. Glenn Bradley on

    Many live in a world of myth, propaganda & down right lies created since partition and cemented in almost 40 years of conflict with some in leadership roles, today, wallowing in and feeding mindsets who crave absolute victory; a purist state; sectarianism or simply petty one up man-ship.

    Moral courage, generosity, kindness, earnestness and passionate hard work to deliver quality of life issues to ALL in society have been abandoned in the daily tribal drama of faux outrage, trivia & in some cases religious dogma or fascist sentiments.

    At best Stormont has become a poorly managed (well) subsidized administration with increasing numbers of the electorate switching off to the charade. Politics and Peace has become an industry to some – I believe there are individuals happy to make money from a stalled process that delivers nothing meaningful for all people here.

    We’ve often debated here on Mallie the question ‘…are our local politicians capable?…’ Ever an optimist I believe some are but will that minority of able people be capable of leading all? I don’t think so. I believe the only thing that will give the ‘administration’ the much need jolt it needs is outside support and a guiding hand. It is essential that the heavy lifting required from all parties is matched in equal measure by HMG; the IG and the USA.

    All projects are an opportunity to learn, to work through problems, to create and recreate. In the end every detail will be clarified – it’s just a matter of time and tenacity so, please all, get readjusted to deliver meaningful, positive quality of life matters and a bill of rights for ALL Citizens.

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