April 10th, 2023
Written by John Grogan
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement
Today is the 25th anniversary of April 10th 1998 when the Good Friday agreement was signed in Northern Ireland. This successfully brought decades of ‘the troubles’ involving bombings and murders to an end. President Biden will be in Belfast later in the week to mark the occasion.
Meanwhile, my earliest political memory is of an Irish Evening in Yorkshire half a century ago. When what I later learned was an IRA song was played my father grabbed my arm and we made a speedy exit. I learnt that night from his example that using violence to pursue a political cause in a democracy is always wrong.
Just before Easter I attended an event in London in honour of the late member of Parliament John Hulme. He was a founder member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland which espoused both a belief in a united Ireland and non violence. He won the Nobel peace prize for his own contribution to the peace process.
I was fortunate enough to serve on the Northern Ireland Select Committee during the period of the negotiations. I recall going into the high security Maze Prison. The wings were effectively self managed by the different paramilitary groups. On the republican side most of the prisoners appeared to be spending their time studying Gaelic history or international politics. We met the loyalist prisoners, almost all from the working class streets of East Belfast, playing 5-a-side in the gym. Many expressed an ambition to get a job with a sports club or leisure centre on their release. As I was leaving I asked the Prison Officer what crimes they had committed. He replied, ‘Everybody you have met today sir is a murderer’. Soon they would to a man be released as part of the final peace agreement and almost none returned to political violence.
At the time I was the MP for Selby in North Yorkshire which included Tadcaster. A policeman Glenn Goodman, 37, was shot on the A64 near the town on 7 June 1992 after stopping a car to make a routine check. The vehicle contained an IRA terrorist Paul Magee who was subsequently jailed for murder. The most difficult interview in my life was on Radio York in 2000 defending the Good Friday agreement after Paul Magee had been released. Glenn Goodman’s parents, who were also in the live discussion, naturally found this turn of events impossible to accept. I could only acknowledge that I could not of course bring Glen back to them. I could, however, support an agreement which if it worked would mean young men and young women from Yorkshire serving in the British army would no longer have to go and risk their lives on the streets of Northern Ireland.
Fast forward a few years to February 24th 2007 which happened to be my birthday. Ireland were playing England in the Six Nations rugby but this was no ordinary fixture. The game was being played not at the usual home of Irish rugby Landsdowne Road which was being completely rebuilt but at Croke Park which since the 1880’s had been the home of Gaelic sports. Moreover, in 1920 during the war of Irish Independence British troops had opened fire at spectators attending a match at the stadium killing fourteen people including one of the players. The speculation before the rugby match in 2007 was how would the crowd react when the national anthems were played - would there be a riot? I was watching in a pub full of Irish and English fans. Just before ‘God Save the Queen’ began the biggest Irishman in the pub went around all his mates, tapped them on the shoulder and said: ‘We will respect the anthems boys’. And they did. In that bar on that evening I realised that something magnificent had happened in the history of our islands and that peace was going to be given a chance. It helped the mood of our Irish friends that they won 43-13 but the result of the match was not really what mattered that day.
John Major, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Bertie Ahern, David Trimble and John Hulme will be names that will be forever associated with the Good Friday Agreement which itself has been studied as an example of successful peacemaking across the world. Now the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Taioseach of the Republic of Ireland have negotiated the Windsor Protocol which preserves the integrity of the treaty for the post Brexit world. As the Prime Minister put it, in a departure from the Government’s previous position of refusing to acknowledge any benefits whatsoever of a closer trading position with the European Union.
“Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position - unique position in the entire world, European continent - in having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous... but also the European Union single market.”
For me it is enough that when someone on a doorstep tells me that democratic politics never makes any difference to anybody I can point assuredly to the example of British-Irish relations and suggest that they are mistaken.
As President Biden’s favourite poet Seamus Heaney put it…
“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”