A few years ago at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, a group of 38 IRA prisoners escaped from the Maze prison. The violent breakout was celebrated by their Republican supporters as “the Great Escape” of “IRA heroes”. But while Republicans (mostly from the Catholic community) cheered, the majority in Northern Ireland, Unionists (mostly Protestants), saw the jail-breakers as ruthless criminals, murderers and terrorists.
Some time later two of the men who escaped, Brendan McFarlane and Gerry Kelly, were arrested in Holland. Police believed the IRA men were plotting a violent attack on British soldiers in Germany. A cache of weapons was uncovered by the Dutch police and the British government of Margaret Thatcher worked very hard to have the two escapees extradited to serve long prison sentences in Northern Ireland.
I managed to get into the Dutch jail to talk to the IRA prisoners for a TV programme. The key question was whether the IRA should be considered criminals as the British wanted or, as the IRA claimed, as “freedom fighters” and “political prisoners” who should be freed in Holland.
My own family are Protestants, with roots in Scotland and also in the Unionist pro-British community in Northern Ireland. I was well aware how much the IRA was hated. But I also knew many Republicans. IRA members spoke passionately of their “armed struggle” to throw British forces out of Northern Ireland. These real fears and historic hatreds, it seemed to me at the time, had lasted centuries and probably could never be solved. It seemed hopeless.
But then two extraordinary things happened. First, a group of visionary politicians, including Bill Clinton and US senator George Mitchell, plus courageous British and Irish political leaders, among them prime ministers John Major, Tony Blair and Ireland’s Bertie Ahern, started to work hard behind the scenes to bring the parties together. And second, the leadership of the IRA made a profoundly important decision.
They realised their “armed struggle” could continue to all eternity but would never lead to the outcome they wanted. They could not create a truly united Ireland by blowing up parts of it with bombs. The IRA therefore took the momentous decision to move more emphatically into politics through their political party Sinn Fein.
By the time all this happened, I was the BBC’s North America editor in Washington DC and I spent time with the American negotiator on Ireland, senator Mr Mitchell. His family background was part-Lebanese. He joked that this meant he understood divided communities. His negotiating technique was – in a word –patience. He sat down with Unionists and asked about their grievances. They would talk non-stop for hours. Then he sat down with Republicans. They would also talk for hours. Mitchell would repeat the process for many weeks.
“I did a lot of listening,” he told me, as if he was Northern Ireland’s psychotherapist. Then when everyone was bored of rehearsing their problems, Mr Mitchell finally asked both sides what they might do to find solutions.
It all still seemed impossible. We had 30 years of the immediate crisis in which 3,500 had died and about 700 years of tribal hatreds between English, Irish and Scots. A Unionist MP said to me that the only reason Mr Blair thought an agreement was even possible was that he had “no sense of history”. Everyone doubted that the IRA and other paramilitary organisations would give up their guns and explosives.
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But then, at the Belfast parliament in Stormont, I bumped into the former IRA prison escapee Gerry Kelly. He had eventually been extradited from Holland, jailed, then released by the British government. He was by this time an elected member of parliament, smartly dressed in suit and tie. His previous status in the IRA gave him great credibility within the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.
One of the key British negotiators at the time told me he thought Mr Kelly was among the most scary people he had ever met. On that day in Belfast, Mr Kelly called out to me and said he “wanted a word”. We walked around outside the parliament building until he stopped and said: “Tell me, Gavin – should I smile more on television?”
I laughed at the typically dry Belfast humour. “It wouldn’t hurt, Gerry,” was my reply. And then I realised this conversation marked a watershed moment. “This is going to work isn’t it?” I said, meaning that if one of the IRA’s so-called hard men was thinking about his public image on TV, there was a real prospect of peace. Mr Kelly nodded and said he hoped so. The IRA then began to de-commission their weapons.
Peace processes are never perfect. IRA members rarely repudiate their past. They express regret about those who were killed but never accept that the IRA was a terrorist organisation. Unionists still see the IRA as murderous criminals, even though Protestant paramilitary organisations also have plenty of blood on their hands. Forgiveness is difficult. Forgetting is impossible.
Nevertheless, Mr Kelly went on to become a minister in the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The Unionist leader Ian Paisley and a former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, worked so well together they were known as “the Chuckle Brothers” for their shared sense of humour. And Gerry Kelly used his IRA past to try to bring together combatants in intractable violent conflicts elsewhere in the world, including in the Philippines.
He once told me that the key moment for him came when he realised that very few wars are ever truly won. The British, he said, could never completely destroy Irish Republicanism. The IRA could never completely destroy the passion of those in Northern Ireland who want to remain British. The choice was for both sides to fight forever or to negotiate. The Good Friday Agreement was the result.
There are still a few hopeless Republican diehards who have no political programme and who plot acts of terror. And there are still some Protestant bigots who hate Catholics simply because they are Catholics. Right now, flying certain flags, singing certain songs or choosing to speak in Irish rather than English can lead to a row or a fight. But anyone visiting Northern Ireland today will find it a beautiful place with mostly safe streets and strong local pride. When I lived in Belfast, a visit to a restaurant or a theatre always carried the vague worry that a bomb would go off or some terrorist incident would take place. Some flashpoint areas were always avoided, except by the foolhardy. Things have changed so much for the better it’s tempting to forget the dismal and violent past.
Simply put, the Good Friday Agreement has been one of the greatest political successes of recent history. But even now it may be in jeopardy. Some politicians, including the oddball British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, appear unable to comprehend how Brexit and the demand for Britain to erect borders with the European Union could sour relations between Britain and Ireland, and kill peace between Unionists and Republicans. Brexit means borders. A hard border on the island of Ireland – something almost no one wants – raises again the kind of divisions which led generations of Irish and British men and women to fight and kill each other.
Moreover, despite the hopes of those who believe the spirit of Good Friday could translate to other conflicts, that seems unlikely. The current Israeli government appears to think overwhelming military might provides lasting security. It doesn’t. There is no permanent victory when people continue to hate you. The Assad regime appears to believe brutalising the Syrian people guarantees the regime’s survival. It merely guarantees worldwide loathing.
But if members of the IRA and other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, Unionists and Republicans, can change and make peace, perhaps there remains hope in other supposedly impossible conflicts. The Good Friday Agreement teaches important lessons, even for those with blood on their hands. But nothing useful can be taught to those who simply refuse to learn.
Gavin Esler is a television presenter, journalist and author