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Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace


The long, bloody path to Irish peace

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 4/19/1998

ELFAST - In March of 1988, everyone had blood on their hands.

In the course of 13 days, the venality and futility of the violence in Northern Ireland had come full circle. The main combatants - the Irish Republican Army, loyalist paramilitary groups, and the British security forces - each had been victim and victimizer, brutal and brutalized.

It was a bloody stalemate. All the warring sides could do was commit atrocities against each other. Each act of violence became justification for more carnage and a sickening reminder of the adage that there is no future in Ireland, only the past happening over and over again.

But out of this mayhem emerged a flicker of hope. The peace process that culminated in settlement two weeks ago had secretly begun.

On March 6, 1988, Danny McCann, Sean Savage, and Mairead Farrell were strolling in Gibraltar, the British colony on the Mediterranean Sea, trying to blend in with the rest of the tourists who flock there for a winter break.

In fact, they were members of the IRA there to blow up British soldiers. But their explosives were stashed miles away, and they were unarmed when a group of British commandos, without a word, gunned them down on the street.

Ten days later, as their coffins were being lowered into the ground here in Milltown Cemetery, a Protestant extremist named Michael Stone began throwing hand grenades and shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. He was motivated by blind hatred of Catholics and anyone who supported the IRA. Three mourners were killed. Stone would have been dead as well had the police not rescued him from incensed mourners who caught and beat him after he ran out of bullets.

Three days later, as the funeral cortege of one of those killed by Stone made its way through West Belfast, a car drove into the middle of the procession. The driver panicked and quickly reversed direction. Mourners, assuming another loyalist attack, surrounded the car. One of the two men inside produced a gun, fired it into the air, and the mob briefly dispersed. But it returned in a frenzy to drag the pair from the car and disarm them. They turned out to be British soldiers in plain clothes. The men were beaten, stripped, then shot in the head by the IRA, executed as callously as the three IRA operatives who had been cut down two weeks before in Gibraltar.

During those 13 days, eight people had been killed under appalling circumstances. The murder of the mourners and the British soldiers were recorded by photographers and triggered revulsion around the world. One haunting image captured the despair etched on the face of the Rev. Alec Reid as he knelt over the body of one of the dead soldiers to administer last rites. He seemed to be pleading: When will it all end?

Father Reid had already taken steps to see that it might. Two months before the March bloodletting, the Belfast priest had arranged a secret meeting at his monastery between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose party serves as the political wing of the IRA, and John Hume, the leader of nonviolent nationalism. If a date can be ascribed to the birth of the peace process in Northern Ireland, it was Jan. 11, 1988, when Adams and Hume met at Father Reid's urging and shook hands.

Before there could be rapprochement between Protestant unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic nationalists, who aspire to unity with the Irish Republic, the nationalists had to reach an understanding among themselves.

The debate between constitutional nationalists like Hume, who favor uniting Ireland by peaceful, democratic methods, and republicans like Adams, who argue that the British leave their colonies only at gunpoint, has gone on for two centuries. During the 1970s, Adams had been an IRA leader, and he would never apologize for IRA violence. ''Without it, we'd still be on our knees,'' he insisted. Hume, whose hero is Martin Luther King Jr., is a pacifist who believes violence only further divided the people on the island and hinders the possibility of unification.

At that meeting a decade ago, Hume and Adams began a secret dialogue that, like the negotiations of the last two years, stumbled along, broke down, and resumed again before leading to the IRA cease-fire of 1994. That cease-fire, followed by a Protestant loyalist truce, would also temporarily break down. But it set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in a settlement earlier this month.

Hume argued that unionists had to be persuaded, not forced, to join a united Ireland. ''I told Gerry,'' Hume recalled, ''that our problem was not a divided island, but a divided people, and that you don't bring people together by killing them.''

Publicly, Adams was still defending the IRA. But privately, he was beginning to believe that violence had brought the republican movement as close to its goals as it could. Unlike some extremists who had fits of conscience, Adams's decision to wean his movement from violence was based on pragmatic grounds. He and a cadre of republican theorists - most of them, like Adams, former IRA prisoners - believed that in a peaceful environment, nationalists could win wider influence in the Irish and British parliaments, as well as on Capitol Hill, and produce momentum that would force unionists to compromise and eventually lead to a united Ireland.

Adams argued that a united Ireland could not be achieved as long as the IRA was fighting, because its violence allowed unionists and others to target it as the main obstacle to peace. An end to the IRA campaign would recast the conflict as a political problem that must be resolved through negotiation, not a security problem addressed by more police and soldiers.

Hume's efforts to draw the republicans into the mainstream were bolstered by widespread opposition to the IRA in the Irish Republic, where most people favor unity but not violence.

Traditionally, unionists have opposed unification on the grounds that their standard of living and religious freedom would suffer. Until recently, the south was poorer and its institutions dominated by the Catholic Church. But its vibrant economy and growing secularism have blunted that unionist argument. Also, changing demographics are narrowing the gap between the 900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics living in Northern Ireland. Some studies show a Catholic majority emerging there in a generation.

Slowly but surely, Adams and his colleagues convinced more and more hardliners that the political route was the more effective way to reach their goal.

''History,'' Adams said confidently, ''is on our side.''

Extremists provide initial impetus

After the IRA called its 1994 cease-fire, the Irish government joined Hume and Adams to form a united nationalist front. The confidence of nationalists only increased unionist anxiety. Since 1985, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement giving Dublin a voice in Northern Ireland was signed without unionist consultation, unionists became increasingly fearful that the British government intended to desert them.

Surprisingly, the initial impetus for a compromise came not from moderate mainstream Protestants who comprise the majority of the population, but from extremists, many of whom had been members of loyalist paramilitary groups that killed Catholics at random to weaken support for the IRA. While some middle-class unionists suffered, most had fairly comfortable lifestyles. It was the loyalist working-class neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the conflict. Loyalists, like republicans, did most of the killing, the dying, and the prison time. They, like republicans, had the most to gain from peace.

Loyalist paramilitary groups have always had an inferiority complex. Most of the media attention has focused on the IRA, not them. The IRA cloaked itself in romantic idealism, and its mythology was reinforced by popular culture. But its members killed without remorse, drawing on their political ideology for justification. When they were called gangsters and terrorists, IRA members recalled the 1981 hunger strikes in which 10 republican prisoners died seeking political status. As one IRA man said a few years ago, ''Gangsters don't starve themselves to death.''

Loyalists, according to the common view, were just bigoted thugs. Gusty Spence admits he was little more than that in 1966 when he shot and killed a Catholic man outside a Belfast bar. In jail, Spence became envious of the political clarity IRA prisoners used to maintain morale. He learned Irish so he could listen to their political discussions as they shouted from cell to cell.

''We had to develop our own politics,'' said Spence, now 65.

While Spence emulated the IRA on the inside, his successors outside the prison walls copied its lethal ways. At that time, the IRA was killing more people than loyalists were. Loyalists improved their firepower, purged the racketeers in their midst, and by 1992 were killing more people annually than the IRA. While most of their victims were ordinary Catholics, an increasing number of Sinn Fein figures were murdered as well. This new loyalist tactic put pressure on the republican movement to consider a compromise.

As Spence's proteges were released from prison, they returned to their working-class neighborhoods with new perspective. Gone were the jobs in the shipyards and factories that had fallen to them by birthright. Some Protestants were now as poor and deprived as Catholics had been in the 1960s under unionist domination.

David Ervine, who became a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is dominated by former loyalist prisoners, concluded it was time to identify who was really keeping loyalists down.

''A lot of us went to prison because we listened to people like Ian Paisley say the republicans were going to overrun us and the British were going to sell us down the river to Dublin,'' said Ervine, referring to the firebrand Protestant extremist opposed to any settlement. ''But what have people like Paisley done to protect the union or help us? Nothing. We had to protect the union and help ourselves.''

To do so, loyalists decided to talk to their enemies and seek a compromise. Billy Hutchinson, a loyalist negotiator who served 15 years for killing two Catholics, emerged from prison committed not only to socialism but to forming relationships with like-minded republicans. He became friendly with Pat McGeown, who as an IRA prisoner almost died in the 1981 hunger strike.

But while loyalists and nationalists were ready to deal in 1994, mainstream Protestant unionists were not. They were threatened by the growing cooperation between London and Dublin and feared that the two governments would reach a deal without them. The IRA called an unconditional cease-fire Aug. 31, 1994, followed six weeks later by the loyalists. But unionists refused to countenance ''sitting down with terrorists,'' especially after the paramilitary groups refused to give up their weapons prior to a settlement.

Ken Maginnis, an Ulster Unionist leader who survived several IRA assassination attempts, was not in a conciliatory mood when Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and a former IRA leader, tried to chat with him one day.

''I don't talk to [expletive] murderers,'' Maginnis said, storming off.

Blair emergence paves way in Britain

For a decade, the Irish and British governments refined their partnership. But there was no hope of a settlement until the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries called cease-fires as well. American influence was essential to make this happen. But it was not until Tony Blair was elected prime minister last May that the political conditions in Britain were properly aligned for a settlement.

Bill Clinton came to the White House ready to abandon the American hands-off policy toward Northern Ireland that had been observed in deference to the special relationship between Britain and the United States. Clinton took an interest in Northern Ireland because he thought his administration could make a difference and, if successful, reap the political benefits.

At Hume's urging, Clinton decided in January 1994 to grant Gerry Adams a visa to enter the United States in the face of fierce British opposition. This move convinced many in the IRA leadership that the Americans could be useful in pressuring the British to convene negotiations.

While Adams and other charismatic republicans have gotten most of the attention, it is Hume whose opinion matters most in the corridors of power in Washington. It was Hume who assured Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who assured Bill Clinton, that the Adams visa would pay off.

Despite the cease-fire, unionists balked at negotiating with Sinn Fein. They argued that the IRA was not serious. As the cease-fire held, unionists wanted the IRA to give up its weapons. The IRA refused, saying that to disarm was tantamount to surrender. The IRA continued to shoot petty criminals despite its cease-fire.

Because he had depended on unionist votes to keep his fragile government in power, Blair's predecessor, John Major, sided with the unionist demand that the IRA begin disarming before negotiations could begin. Convinced they were being toyed with and worried about a growing split in their own ranks, the IRA leadership broke its cease-fire Feb. 9, 1996, by exploding a bomb in London that killed two people. Many were convinced that the bad old days had returned.

But there was little appetite for a return to war in the neighborhoods upon which the IRA depends for its survival. In the 18 months between the end of its cease-fire and restoration of its truce last July, the IRA killed only seven people.

In the middle of what was supposed to be a renewed IRA campaign, two well-known IRA figures, Martin Meehan and Terry ''Cruncher'' O'Neill, participated in a skit by a West Belfast theater troupe that lampooned police brutality against nationalists. Instead of shooting police officers, they were making fun of them. The IRA had no intention of returning to its so-called Long War of attrition. It only wanted to reach the negotiating table.

Loyalists, meanwhile, resisted the urge to strike back when the IRA broke its cease-fire. This marked the first time that loyalists had tried to take the moral high ground. Ervine said they were conscious of international opinion, especially in the United States. President Clinton called to congratulate their restraint.

Unlike many mainstream unionists, loyalists were not threatened by American involvement. They reasoned that Washington did not want control of Northern Ireland taken from its closest ally to the Irish Republic, a neutral country. When they visited the United States after their cease-fire, loyalists were stunned by the welcome they received from Irish-Americans.

''I thought all Irish-Americans were Provos [members of the IRA],'' admitted Joe English, the former loyalist paramilitary leader, after addressing an audience at Boston College. He and other loyalists had believed the myth that most Irish-Americans were IRA sympathizers. That myth delayed by years the development of a real peace process.

During a 1995 investment conference at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, English and Paul Hill sat next to each other in the lobby bar, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and trading jokes. The scene was surreal. Hill had served 15 years in prison for an IRA bombing that killed 21 people before he was freed and cleared on appeal. English had played a prominent role in the killing of many Catholics, including some of Hill's friends. But in Washington they were just a couple of lads from Belfast with big thirsts.

Hill introduced his wife, Courtney Kennedy, to English.

''How's your mum?'' English asked, referring to Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's widow.

Later, Hill acknowledged the rapprochement was extraordinary. ''Sure, I know who Joe is. Better yet, I'd like to say I know who Joe was,'' he said. ''Because it's over. The war's over. So we've got to get on with it now, don't we?''

Parliamentary majority emboldens Blair to take risks

Until Blair's landslide election, however, mainstream unionists refused to engage in the peace process, and the IRA refused to restore its cease-fire, a precondition for Sinn Fein's participation in the negotiations. Where Major was tentative and electorally hamstrung, Blair's overwhelming parliamentary majority allowed him to take risks.

Blair was predisposed to risk. He said he would make the achievement of a settlement in Northern Ireland the top priority of his first year in office. He appointed Mo Mowlam as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, the first woman to hold the job. She brought to the post a refreshing informality, along with the wig she wore after losing her hair to cancer treatments, and threw caution to the wind.

Blair's willingness to put aside the thorny issue of paramilitary weapons and to set a May 1 deadline for an agreement produced another IRA cease-fire last July. By September, Sinn Fein had joined the talks. Now the Ulster Unionists had to decide if they would, too.

Conscious that Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, could and probably would reach a deal without them, the Ulster Unionists returned to the talks after Sinn Fein was admitted. Attacked by Paisley and even some party colleagues for sitting down with terrorists, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble insisted he would not negotiate directly with Sinn Fein.

But Trimble was also being urged to press forward by Protestant church and business leaders who believed it was time for a settlement. The business community in particular is convinced that political stability will deliver an unprecedented economic dividend.

Trimble, a prickly personality who is hated by nationalists, sought assurances from Blair, Ahern, and Clinton that the IRA would not resume violence to gain a tactical advantage. Trimble recalled that during a conversation at the White House last year, Clinton assured him that if the IRA broke its cease-fire again, Sinn Fein's access to the United States, a source of lucrative fundraising, would be cut off. But there was a quid pro quo: Clinton expected Trimble to stay in the talks and make a good-faith effort to reach a settlement. Blair repeatedly echoed that sentiment.

Although concessions and assurances from the Irish and British governments powered the negotiations through endless difficulties, in the end it was the judicial and political instincts of a New England judge-cum-politician that steered the talks to an agreement.

Mitchell enlisted to chair peace talks

George Mitchell had regarded the 1994 cease-fire as good news. But he gave it little thought until Bill Clinton called him one day out of the blue. Mitchell, 64, had just retired as Senate majority leader and was looking forward to a lucrative Washington law practice that would allow him finally to buy his dream home on Mount Desert Island off the coast of his native Maine.

But Clinton had other ideas.

''We talked about a lot of things, but we talked about Ireland for only about 30 seconds,'' Mitchell recalled. Those 30 seconds eventually consumed nearly four years of his life.

Clinton first asked Mitchell if he would organize a trade conference in Washington to encourage US investment in Ireland. The job was supposed to last six months. When Clinton decided to become the first American president to visit Northern Ireland, he asked Mitchell to stay on until the trip took place in December 1995.

But just days before Clinton arrived here, the British and Irish governments asked Mitchell to serve as chairman of a commission formed to recommend what should be done with paramilitary weapons. Then in the spring of 1996, Dublin and London asked him to chair the talks.

Mitchell knew little about Northern Ireland. In hindsight, this was a blessing. Had he been better informed, he might not have taken on a task that nearly everyone else thought was impossible: To achieve a settlement in a political culture where compromise is regarded as treason.

Initially, unionists suggested Mitchell was biased toward nationalists. ''George Mitchell is from the Kennedy stable of the Boston lobby of republicanism,'' thundered Paisley, the fundamentalist preacher who led his party out of the talks rather than sit with Sinn Fein.

Mitchell then received a lesson in how sleazy politics here can be. Martha Pope, his longtime chief of staff who out of loyalty accompanied him from Capitol Hill to Belfast, was smeared by a British tabloid. The paper claimed she was having an affair with the convicted IRA bomber Gerry Kelly, now a member of the Sinn Fein negotiating team. Within a week, Pope had received a retraction and a six-figure settlement. But Mitchell was appalled that her reputation was sacrificed in an attempt to get rid of him.

When he learned that some unionist politicians had encouraged the reporters who wrote the story, Mitchell became more determined to stay. He remained a study in patience in the face of the Belfast adage that politicians here would argue over the time of day.

In July 1996, as his brother lay dying of cancer in the United States, Mitchell tried to resolve a procedural dispute over the rules for the negotiations. ''I felt terribly guilty,'' he recalled. ''I was torn between my obligation to my family and my duty here. And what made it worse was the dispute was over something that should have been resolved in five minutes.''

Word came that his brother died, and still it took Mitchell three more days to get the rules set. He then took ''the longest flight of my life'' and barely made it home in time to deliver the eulogy.

If it takes this long to get them to agree on procedure, Mitchell thought, how on earth will we ever get to the substantive issues?

Last December, before the talks adjourned for Christmas, Mitchell tried unsuccessfully to persuade the parties to agree on an outline for a settlement. He began to think the situation might be hopeless. In January, his worst fears were realized: Extremists bent on destroying the peace process killed a dozen people. Most of the killings were committed by loyalists against Catholic civilians.

But during those horrible days, something remarkable happened. One of the Catholic victims was Terry Enright, who was married to Gerry Adams's niece. Enright ran an outreach program for both Protestant and Catholic youths and was admired in both communities. Inside the negotiating room, Reg Empey, a member of the Ulster Unionist delegation, expressed his sympathies. This was an obvious gesture to Adams, even though Empey's party refused to acknowledge Sinn Fein at the negotiating table.

Martin McGuinness was stunned.

''Did you hear that?'' he said, almost to himself.

A thaw of sorts was beginning.

`We stay until the process is over'

As he sat in Florida, holding the son he had hardly seen since the child's birth in October and enjoying the sun he hardly saw in Belfast, Mitchell decided he had to do something dramatic.

''It became obvious to me that the longer these negotiations dragged on, the better chance those outside the process had to ruin them,'' he explained. Last month, after consulting the eight parties at the talks, Mitchell set a deadline of April 9.

When Blair and Ahern arrived here two weeks ago for the final push toward an agreement, Mitchell took them aside and told them, ''The one thing I want from you is an absolute commitment that when we come into session Thursday morning, we stay in session. Either we get an agreement, or we fail to get an agreement, but we stay until the process is over.''

Blair and Ahern agreed with Mitchell's strategy. With the international media assembled, the negotiators would either emerge with a historic agreement or be forced to tell the world they had failed.

Drawing on his judicial and political experience, Mitchell had effectively sequestered the jury that would render the verdict on Northern Ireland's future It was powerful pressure. ''I didn't want to come out and say we had consigned another generation to misery,'' said

Few of the negotiators slept much the final few days. Seamus Mallon, chief negotiator for Hume's Social and Democratic Labor Party, absentmindedly left a copy of the proposed settlement in the bar of the Stormont Hote as he slept for a few hours. Its disclosure could have destroyed the talks. uckily, a young bartender, unaware of its significance, put it aside for Mallon without looking at it.

Mallon's colleague, Mark Durkan, was so exhausted on the final day of negotiations that he ate half of a sausage roll before realizing it was Good Friday; as a practicing Catholic, he is not permitted to eat meat on the Lenten holy day.

Durkan and his colleagues had spent the night bargaining with Trimble's delegation over the powers that would be vested in a new Northern Ireland assembly and cross-border authorities that will oversee areas of mutual interest on the island. Unionists wanted a strong assembly and weak cross-border authorities. Nationalists would consent to an assembly only if the Irish government had real powers in the cross-border authorities to protect their interests.

The night before the settlement was reached, an angry McGuinness emerged from the talks to suggest Sinn Fein would not be part of any agreement that diluted the outline Mitchell had proposed. Rumors spread that Sinn Fein would walk out. After the midnight deadline passed, the talks continued. McGuinness and Adams strolled the parking lot, hoping the cold air would clear their heads.

The morning of Good Friday, Mitchell's phone rang. He picked it up and heard ''Hey, George'' in a familiar Arkansas drawl.

''Bill,'' Mitchell said, looking at his watch, ''What are you doing up at 3 in the morning?''

Clinton said he couldn't sleep, that he was concerned about the negotiations bogging down.

''What can I do to help?'' the president asked.

Mitchell talked to Blair, who in turn called Clinton. Clinton made a series of calls to Adams, Hume, Ahern, and Trimble, asking them all to make a leap of faith and pledging US support for their efforts.

The settlement remained in limbo to the end over the fate of paramilitary prisoners and weapons, and the ability of politicians like Adams and Ervine to participate in the new assembly if the groups they represent returned to violence. Trimble received written assurances from Blair that weapons would have to be turned in and that the cease-fires had to hold. Trimble appeared ready to agree to a deal. But one of his party rivals, Jeffrey Donaldson, held out, outraged that the settlement called for the release of prisoners in two years. Donaldson slammed his briefcase shut and left.

At 4:45 p.m., Trimble picked up the phone and called Mitchell. ''We're ready to go,'' he said.

Minutes later, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern stood together outside and told the world that those inside had put aside the baggage of history and reached an agreement. In Ireland, where the dead have always wielded a disproportionate influence, a decision had been made for the living.

As Blair and Ahern went back inside, the sky suddenly darkened. Trimble stepped out to explain why he compromised and was pelted with freezing snow and hail. At the White House, a group of National Security Council officials who shape American policy in Northern Ireland watched the scene on TV.

''They said hell would freeze over before this happened. Well, hell just froze over,'' one of them cracked.

Over the next five weeks, Trimble and Adams will be accused by hardliners of selling out. But on May 22 it will be up to the people, north and south, to decide whether they want to share this island in a new spirit of cooperation or return to a time when, as in those 13 days of March 1988, the only thing to look forward to is the next funeral.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 4/19/1998.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.