SCHOOL finished for the day and I boarded a bus which began to meander its way through a small town in Northern Ireland. Suddenly there were sirens, flashing lights and police Land Rovers all around, and the bus ground to a halt.
The police shouted for us to get off, and a bunch of terrified teenagers, escorted by police officers, ran in the opposite direction away from the roadblock. We sheltered in a cold church hall as the ground shook violently and the deep thud of detonating explosive filled the air. The IRA had decided to bomb our town centre. Mercifully no one was killed but the destruction and violence inflicted on the town centre was extensive.
As a teenager growing up in Northern Ireland this was normality, as was switching on the television each night to find yet more explosions, more murders, more people maimed. The “Troubles” have left a legacy of thousands of deaths and virtually no family was left untouched.
In those dark days peace seemed a distant pipedream, and good news was in scarce supply. So it is hard to overstate the phenomenal hope that flooded Northern Ireland on Good Friday 1998, when an historic agreement was reached by politicians from all sides, along with the British and Irish governments.
Back in 1997, I was a youth worker and was part of a process that brought groups of Catholic and Protestant young people to meet all the political leaders, to encourage them to do a deal. They talked for over two years, and along with painstaking work from the Chair, US Senator George Mitchell and the presence of both the Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the Belfast Agreement, or Good Friday Agreement, was reached on April 10, 1998.
The Agreement provided for a devolved assembly at Stormont, a multi-party executive elected by Assembly, a Council of Ministers from the Assembly Executive and the Irish Government to address Ireland wide issues, and a Council of the British Isles to deal with the relationships across these islands. The Agreement removed the Irish constitutional claim to Northern Ireland and the British Government declared it had no “selfish or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.
During the referenda campaign that followed I stood in a concert hall in Belfast surrounded by young people, as Bono, of the rock group U2, held aloft the arms of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and the SDLP leader John Hume and urged the Northern Irish people to vote for peace. They did just that, and the Agreement was backed by referenda on both sides of the border, with 94 per cent approval in Irish Republic and an astonishing 71 per cent backing the deal in Northern Ireland.
Since then, the Agreement has had its fair share of ups and downs. There were moments of bewildering significance, like when the then DUP leader Ian Paisley and the Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness (both of whom were not party to the talks leading to the Agreement) were seen liking each other. So much has been achieved, and Northern Ireland is a much better place today than it was 20 years ago.
That said, as the Agreement celebrates its 20th birthday, the Assembly has been suspended, having collapsed 14 months ago after a political scandal. Efforts to reinstate it have so far failed because the process faces two immediate and serious challenges.
The first challenge followed the General Election of 2017 which wiped out Theresa May’s parliamentary majority. She then negotiated a “confidence and supply” deal with the DUP, the largest unionist party to prop up her government in Westminster. It was the former Prime Minister John Major who said that this deal threatened to jeopardise the impartial role of the UK Government. He said the peace process was more fragile than most commentators realise and arguably this strengthened the DUP’s influence at the expense of Sinn Fein and has made the negotiations to restore the Assembly more complicated.
The second is Brexit. As a child growing up in Northern Ireland, the border was a terrifying place. Army fortresses, watchtowers, the shudder of the Chinook helicopters flying over. It was the scene of much violence over the 30 years of the Troubles. Today only the eagle-eyed would spot where the border is, it is simply a change of road marking. The relaxing of the border has been a good outcome of the Good Friday Agreement, improving trade, and making the island of Ireland a more normal place to live.
However the Irish border is the only land border the UK has with the EU, and how to solve the conundrum of maintaining an open border in Ireland which is essential to the Good Friday Agreement, whilst delivering Brexit is keeping decision-makers awake across these islands.
The DUP have said they will not countenance anything that changes the current relationship that Northern Ireland has within the United Kingdom, yet the only possible way that could be honoured, is to make the Irish border a harder border than it is now, which would be hugely resisted by Sinn Fein and the Irish government. This risks a return to the bad old days of check points and security. At the very time we need the British Government to be able to show courageous leadership, they appear to be constrained by their relationship with the DUP.
Irish history suggests it is easy to be pessimistic about the future, but the past 20 years show the huge progress that has been made. The Good Friday Agreement has made Northern Ireland a safer and more peaceful place. Yet now a number of pro-Brexit politicians seem to be prepared to trade the Agreement off in order to deliver Brexit.
I think they are wholly wrong to do so, and those of us who grew up in the misery of the Troubles and who recognise the progress that has been made, will work hard to defend the Good Friday Agreement and continue to encourage the DUP and Sinn Fein to deliver the accountable government that the people of Northern Ireland desperately want and need.
Mark Russell is chief executive of Church Army and writes in a personal capacity. He grew up in Northern Ireland and now is based in Sheffield. He tweets @markrusselluk