It has become fashionable in Ireland and Britain to smile condescendingly at the memory of Tony Blair’s famous sound bite about feeling the hand of history on his shoulder when he signed the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast, the keystone in the torturous process which finally brought peace to strife-torn Northern Ireland.
But as we mark the tenth anniversary of that famous epiphany and look at what has happened since it seems somewhat churlish to snigger cynically at a little bit of self-indulgent enthusiasm about an achievement which more and more looks like a near-miracle. The nightmare which the people living in this archipelago on the north-western shore of mainland Europe lived through for 30-odd years is now truly over. Furthermore, when we look in more detail at what happened throughout those years and at how it was all brought to an end we cannot be blamed for thinking that not only was the hand of history involved but the hand of God must have played a part as well. Perhaps that was what Mr. Blair really meant – but since, in press secretary Alastair Campbell’s famous phrase, "Tony doesn’t do God" (in public), he couldn’t put it that way?
This was not just a nightmare for a corner of the island of Ireland. It was nightmare for two islands . The House of Parliament in London was bombed and a government minister was assassinated. Birmingham, Manchester and other British cities were targets and scenes of IRA atrocities; Prime Minister Thatcher escaped assassination in the bombing at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. Others did not. The IRA campaign even went as far as Gibraltar where British special agents thwarted an attempted atrocity by shooting down three IRA operatives.
Two events in this same week when we remember the signing of that historic agreement serve to deepen the sense of gratitude which we should feel for the achievement of Mr Blair and others in making the historic step which was to be the beginning of the end of the sorry story. One is the sad death at 50 of one of the surviving victims of what must surely rank as one of the most vicious series of atrocities perpetrated over those 30 years. The other is the publication of Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell’s memoir of his work as Blair’s chief of staff over the period.
Poor Gerard McLaverty, just 19 years of age, was walking home one night in 1977 when he was stopped by three men posing as policemen. He smelled a rat and ran for his life. They caught him when he failed to scale a wall into a cemetery. They overpowered him, dragged him into a disused doctor’s surgery and set to work on him to torture and kill him as they had done with 19 others. They beat him, half strangled him with bootlaces, broke for tea and then resumed by slashing his wrists. They then took him out and left him to bleed to death in an alleyway. His groans were heard by a passer-by at some time during the night and he was brought to hospital. He survived.
He was the last victim of this vicious "loyalist" gang known as the "Shankill butchers". After his recovery he helped the police to identify some of his attackers and eventually 11 members of the gang were tried and convicted of murders "carried out", in the words of the sentencing judge, "in a manner so cruel and ruthless as to be beyond the comprehension of any normal person". McLaverty never fully recovered from his ordeal but went on to try and live as normal a life as possible. He was a simple and kind man whose life remained continually at risk because of the heroic role he played in bringing this gang of murderers to justice. He died after an accidental fall in his home, survived by his mother, six sisters and five brothers.
If Gerard McLaverty’s life and death remind us poignantly of where we have come from, Jonathan Powell’s book reminds us of how we got from there to here and how difficult a process it was. Indeed when we read his account of what the facilitating British and Irish Governments had to contend with in bringing and keeping together the two sides – each of which had two sides within them and the constant threat of further splintering – we cannot but feel that some divinity was shaping our end.
As we open our newspapers now and see on our television screens the spectacle of the two laughing cavaliers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, sharing jokes as well as power as, respectively, First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Stormont Government, we still find it hard to believe our eyes. Now popularly known as the "Chuckle Brothers", these two were unable to bring themselves to occupy a floor space between the same four walls when the peace process began.
Powell’s book is both amusing and infuriating. He amuses with his description of the foibles which underscored the rather banal humanity of the actors in this drama. Gerry Adams’ "first demand in any negotiation was normally to be fed and complained regularly about the quality of the food provided."
What infuriates is the gross intransigence and pettiness of many of the participants on many occasions when one realises now that every day, every month, every year over which Northern Ireland’s agony was prolonged, another Gerard McLaverty fell victim to the murderous torturers, the car bomb or the sniper’s bullet. It infuriated the peacemakers at the time and it still infuriates.
But even though "peace" barriers still divide communities in Belfast, while a self-styled "real IRA" still stalks the land and makes threatening noises, and while the President of the Irish Republic cannot still confirm when the head of state of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth, will come to visit, we are nevertheless now four very contented nations — Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh — living in this archipelago. We have come a long way and are nothing if not indebted to those who helped get us here.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.