Twenty-five years ago, Northern Ireland was at a new beginning; something we did not fully understand in the world of 1994, but would learn over a period of time that a corner had been turned.
The developments of that year – and specifically the two ceasefires (republican and loyalist) – would be the start of what has come to be an imperfect peace.
I was then a BBC correspondent in Belfast; the words of the IRA ceasefire read to me and my journalist colleague Eamonn Mallie by a woman on the morning of August 31, 1994. In Dublin, other journalists were also given the IRA statement; that historic news being shared and spread in both parts of this partitioned/divided island and much further afield. The statement declared a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. This was world news, and we now waited for the violent loyalist organisations to see how and when they would reciprocate.
1993 had been a horrendous year; the headlines of October screaming of bombings and shootings and of Northern Ireland once more being walked to some edge. Within weeks, the story emerged of secret contacts between the British Government and the IRA leadership.
We were in another of those moments of convulsion. Did secret contacts mean secret deals? A year later, that nervousness and uncertainty and questioning would play into that period of waiting for the loyalists.
Before there would be any response to the IRA statement, they demanded confirmation of a number of points, including: “That our constitutional position as a partner within the United Kingdom is assured.”
‘THE UNION IS SAFE’
A statement on September 8, 1994 added: “It is incumbent upon the British Government to ensure that there is no change or erosion within Northern Ireland to facilitate the illusion of an IRA victory. Change, if any, can only be honourable after dialogue and agreement.”
The following day, the then Church of Ireland Primate Dr Robin Eames stepped onto the stage. He gave a news conference in which he said Prime Minister John Major had given him his word that there was ‘no secret agreement’ with the IRA.
Eames urged loyalists to listen to the assurance he had been given, adding: “There is more to be gained in the political sense through dialogue than will ever be gained through the barrel of a gun.” By October 13, 1994, a combined loyalist military command had announced a cessation of ‘operational hostilities’ – its statement included in bold type the words: ‘The union is safe’.
Union vs Unity
Why is all of this important in the here-and-now? Because there is once again nervousness and uncertainty in Northern Ireland. Some might even say danger.
Two-plus decades after the Good Friday Agreement that introduced a power-sharing government here, politics at Stormont has broken down.
There have been several lengthy negotiations with elastic deadlines to try to restore the political institutions and, in the standoff, new conversations are opening out. Not just about the old choices of direct rule from Westminster or devolution at Stormont, but a new element – the possibility of a border poll and a future ‘New Ireland’.
There is nothing certain about this, but in this phase of the Brexit debate, this different scenario or outline – this third way – is not easily erased from a stretched and stretching political canvas.
The debate is becoming louder – more persistent. Some might argue, more credible. A border that had faded from people’s memories has been allowed to once more form in their thinking. It is not something they want to imagine; certainly not that security infrastructure that was part of the conflict period.
So, in a place that voted to remain, assurance is needed beyond the talk of some solution that, as I write, has yet to be properly and convincingly defined. Unionists oppose the proposed backstop but, for others, it is the minimum requirement. The extension of this, is that third-way conversation about union versus unity.
This is not the feared secret deal that played in the minds of loyalists and unionists those 25 years ago, but an open dialogue; a real conversation that urges discussion on possibilities in the present. Some have opened their minds. They see a changing scenario. Others appear to be living in denial.
In August 2019 – to mark the 25th anniversary of the first of the ceasefires – I revisited those developments in an interview with Lord Eames.
After the statements of 1994, I learned he had played a key background role in the events that brought the loyalist response in October that year. He had been sharing the thinking of loyalists – communicated privately to him – with then Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Indeed, in March 1994, he had been been given terms and conditions by loyalists that would have allowed their ceasefire to be announced first.
Events on the ground – the targeting and killing of prominent loyalist figures – derailed that initiative. This sentence from an unpublished 1994 document shared with Eames gave an indication of the thinking then of the combined loyalist military command:
“We are concerned that positive political progress should be made so long as the rights of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland are upheld by HMG and an honourable accommodation arrived at with our minority population and their representatives.”
This was their focus on the union and that need for assurance that it was safe. My 2019 interview with Eames for the BBC was not about how we arrived at the ceasefires of 1994, but an examination of progress since. I asked, could he say with any confidence in 2019 that the Union is safe? His response was a measured statement on a changing context: “I would like to say it is, but I believe there are danger signs, which I think we all need to be conscious of.”
His words on that ‘New Ireland’ debate were equally measured: “You don’t have to surrender your principles or the principles you’ve been brought up on to simply grasp new ideas. I’d like to know a bit more about what’s meant by the ‘New Ireland’, but I can see possibilities.”
This is part of the changing conversation – part of what was described to me as a fluid situation. Eames did not elaborate but, in the reading between the lines of his commentary, there is a question about whether people – particularly within the unionist/Protestant community – are awake to what is developing.
We know the questions that will have to be considered and answered. What is meant by this new political and constitutional construct behind the label of a ‘New Ireland’? How does it embrace and protect unionism and Britishness? What kind of political institution should there be in the north? Is this new design economically viable? How do the education and health systems work? What is the transition period? Who leads the conversation?
There are those whose minds are open to this dialogue who are adamant that this cannot and should not be driven by Sinn Fein; adamant also that there cannot be a pre-determined outcome but, instead, the conversation must begin with a blank page.
Others see all of this as premature and dismiss any thinking outside the frame of the union; but in a recent conversation, one senior loyalist – alert to a changing landscape – spoke of people being blind; and not fully understanding the importance of the shifts and trends that are occurring.
New realities that cannot be ignored
Lord Eames is not alone in trying to see the road ahead and plan the journey. In July 2019, on the eamonnmallie.com website, the former Methodist President Harold Good wrote: “As others have rightly pointed out, there are realities regarding the future political landscape of the island of Ireland that we can no longer ignore – and yes, it is also my experience that more and more people from within the unionist part of our community are beginning to share this conversation, much more in private than in public.”
Brexit is a major factor in this discussion. Look at the Northern Ireland vote in the most-recent European elections; probably the most-thinking and strategic election in my lifetime in which the remain position here from the 2016 referendum was underscored when the second unionist seat was lost and the Alliance leader Naomi Long was elected.
This is not to suggest that you can simply transfer that voting trend into some future border poll, but Brexit has changed and is changing mindsets. The ‘New Ireland’ conversation will be and should be a long debate; a thoughtful and carefully managed dialogue, because within it there is so much at stake.
Old certainties are being challenged, The union is not as safe as it once was. We are looking at a dis-united kingdom and, in this place of divided communities, we walk on eggshells when we enter these new discussions. Things change. Even in Northern Ireland. Brexit, the border and Boris Johnson’s style of politics are the things to watch as a third way is considered on the island of Ireland.
The above chapter is Brian Rowan’s contribution to the recently published book: Brexit and Northern Ireland – Bordering on Confusion? Available from www.bite-sizedbooks.com and Amazon.