Easter seeds of 'peace'

Published Thursday, 17 April 2014
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Twenty years ago there was something said but not really heard.

Those images of Martin McGuinness in white tie and tails in that recent picture frame of Royal grandeur tell the story of a long journey.

Twenty years ago, in the build up to Easter 1994, I remember an interview with him and his words back then spoken by an actor.

Those many years ago, we couldn't have imagined photographs with the Queen or Presidents and Prime Ministers.

The broadcasting ban of that period meant that McGuinness and Adams could be seen but not heard.

It was part of the government's response to continuing IRA violence.

But, those 20 years ago, things were just beginning to change.

My interview with McGuinness was broadcast on 23 March 1994.

Days earlier the IRA had launched mortar bombs at Heathrow Airport and then talked of being "flexible in exploring the potential for peace".

Understandably, people and politicians and governments got lost in that maze and muddle of mixed messages.

So lost indeed that they probably didn't pay much attention to what McGuinness had to say.

He called for face-to-face talks between the British Government and republicans and for clarification of the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and what it meant as a possible contribution to peace.

Then, at Easter 1994, the IRA announced a 72-hour ceasefire.

"Making peace is a difficult business for all involved but the difficulties must be overcome," it said.

"That too is the responsibility of all involved but particularly the British Government.

"We hope that the further opportunity here provided is used to that purpose and effect," the statement read.

The then Prime Minister John Major dismissed the statement as a cynical public relations exercise.

Clarification was given; not face-to-face but in writing.

And after months of encouragement from John Hume, the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and influential Irish Americans, the IRA announced "a complete cessation of military operations" in August.

It was the beginning of another beginning - a path out of that confusing maze.

Since then, the peace process has had many 'D' Days - Delay, De-Contamination, Deadlock, Death, Destruction, Decommissioning, Demilitarisation, Devolution and Dissidents to mention just some.

And, for all the progress seen in those recent pictures, we still have an incomplete, imperfect and unfinished peace.

It remains a work in progress.

But who, 20 years ago, as an actor spoke the words of Martin McGuinness, could have pictured him as Deputy First Minister and then in that Royal scene and setting as Easter 2014 approached?

McGuinness said there were reasons that both he and Queen Elizabeth could have found not to meet each other.

But beyond the ceasefires of 1994, peace building and reconciliation become the next steps.

Harold Good is just back from conversations in the Basque Country on conflict resolution.

He understands the importance and significance of that recent visit by Irish President Michael D Higgins to Britain and all the associated events and happenings and opportunities it provided.

"It must also challenge all of us of every political persuasion and religious tradition," the former Methodist President said.

And the church witness to IRA decommissioning in 2005 described that challenge as this:

"To seek and respond to any and every opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to offer imaginative and unexpected gestures as a contribution to reconciliation and the building of trust and new relationships across our fragmented community."

But trust is still the missing ingredient, in still divided communities, in all the talk of 'cultural war', in the fallout from the on-the-runs controversy and the stories of gun-running.

And in this incomplete peace, politics functions and then doesn't function.

It was only recently that First Minister Peter Robinson was discussing 'nuclear options'.

So, yes, this place has moved a long way from the tentative Easter ceasefire of 1994, but it still has a long way to go.

There are those in the republican community who view the presence of Martin McGuinness in that Royal setting as a confirmation of sell out and betrayal.

And it will no doubt be heard and referenced in the dissident republican Easter Commemorations and statements.

There was no road map those twenty years ago at Easter when we got those first words and hints of ceasefire.

Martin McGuinness didn't have a crystal ball in which he would have seen himself in that white tie and tails and in the company of the Queen.

There have been huge compromises along the way and many big gestures.

Who among us could have imagined the political double act of Paisley and McGuinness?

But peace building can't stall. It needs momentum and leadership.

Should we be surprised that in the 1990s after ceasefire the IRA would still have been smuggling weapons?

Does anyone believe the loyalists didn't?

Was decommissioning a complete process?

No it wasn't.

Peace doesn't come in an instant, but in a process.

Long after the ceasefires, the intelligence agencies were still bugging the cars, homes and offices of republicans.

Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one could be absolutely confident that the wars were really over.

And, today, and in this Easter period, there is more to be done.

There can be the political sham fights or the real work of facing the next challenges;

How to end the activity of the dissidents who this Easter will still talk war;

How to negotiate and compromise on flags and marching;

How to find ways of addressing the past;

And, the huge challenge that is reconciliation.

This can't be about winners and losers, and the Past should be about victims and not votes.

It has taken 20 years to get this far from that three-day ceasefire at Easter 1994.

And what is the learning?

It is that peace does indeed come dropping slow.

© UTV News
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Brian Rowan
Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has reported on the major peace process developments - from ceasefires to political agreements.

Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist of the Year awards.

He is the author of four books and a regular commentator on UTV.

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