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1998: the turning point

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Since the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process the word "historical" has become the favorite adjective of speech and editorial writers striving to bestow significance on the latest twists and turns of often unpredictable events. However, 1998 was one year which deserved it.

1998 saw at least two major developments in the history of Ireland. The first was the decision of the republican movement to allow Sinn Fein delegates to take their seats in a Northern Ireland government. And the second was the decision of a paramilitary organization to begin to disarm.

Both were truly historical, not only in their unprecedented nature, but in their significance. In between these events, the all-party talks led to an agreement of history-making proportions and was endorsed in referenda. As a cruelly ironic counterpoint, 1998 was the year in which Ireland suffered the single worst terrorist atrocity in the history of the Troubles.

All these events were linked. They arose because of change and the resistance to the change that emerged from within the republican and loyalist communities in Ireland. The change came about as part of the response of the mainstream republican and loyalist organizations to the peace process. The resistance to change took the form of a violent attack on the peace process by those republicans and loyalists who sought to bring it down. Ironically, their failure to do so was a direct result of the violence they used to try to accomplish their aims. This in itself was proof that the day of the "armed struggle" has well and truly passed in Ireland.

It did not seem that way in the early weeks of 1998. Indeed, it appeared to be the opposite. Renegade loyalists and dissident republicans were threatening to destabilize the whole peace process and the all-party talks seemed perched on the edge of disaster. Loyalist violence was reaching levels not seen since before the Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force called their cease-fires in October 1994. The killings were mainly the work of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a breakaway from the UVF. But no one was under any illusions that at least in Belfast members of the UDA were involved. The fear was that the IRA and the smaller Irish National Liberation Army would respond in kind. There was a growing threat from republican splinter groups. In January a large amount of explosives was discovered at a port on the Irish coast, almost certainly on its way to a bombing attack in England. It was linked to dissident republicans whose public face was the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, which was accusing the IRA of selling out. One senior police officer remarked at the time: "At this point the peace process is a joke."

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The Ulster Democratic Party, the political wing of the UDA, was temporarily expelled from the negotiations, since it was judged to have violated the basis for its participation in the talks process, the six Mitchell principles of non-violence, which all the parties had been obliged to accept. The following month Sinn Fein followed the UDP, suspended for two weeks from the talks because of two IRA murders. There were bomb attacks on provincial towns in Northern Ireland, a mortar attack on an RUC base in South Armagh, and further attempts to launch bombing attacks in Britain. Superficially at least, 1998 looked like the year in which the peace process would prove to be another chimera in the long quest for a settlement to the Irish conflict.

Deep desire for peace

What actually happened was very different. The events of 1998 proved the depth and breadth of the desire for peace in both parts of Ireland. It revealed that the talks process rested on a consensus that the men of violence could not shake.

The negotiations struggled on into April. A last-minute crisis involving the Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and the SDLP was overcome after President Clinton applied some early morning telephone diplomacy. On April 10, 20 hours late, the agreement was born, named in honor of the day as the Good Friday Agreement. A month later, by an overwhelming majority the Irish people ratified the new agreement through in North-South referenda. There followed elections for the new assembly envisioned in the agreement .

It was revealed in the Irish Echo that any elected Sinn Fein members would take their seats in the assembly. The party broke a 70-year rule which prevented any member of the republican movement from recognizing Northern Ireland’s government. Sinn Fein and the IRA had concluded that the only way to make the new institutions outlined in the agreement work, including the cross-border bodies, was to help run them. It was a historic decision, based on the belief that in the current circumstances change would come about more quickly with republicans working inside the institutions than attacking them from the outside. The Provisional IRA had tried that last method — the armed campaign — since 1970 and it failed. The extent and nature of that failure was made horrifyingly clear to the world on the afternoon of Aug. 15 when a 500-pound car bomb devastated the market town of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, killing 29 people, the majority of them women and children. A group of republican dissidents calling themselves the Real IRA claimed responsibility for it. The slaughter was the final proof that the alternative to the path of negotiation offered nothing but further suffering and sorrow. And to what purpose? The Real IRA called a cease-fire, as did the INLA.

Meanwhile, extremists on the loyalist had come to the same conclusion. During the referendum and the assembly elections one of the most remarkable things was to see UDA and UVF men heckling and shouting abuse at the Rev. Ian Paisley. "We won’t go to jail for you now," they cried.

In the middle of the annual confrontation between Orange marchers and Catholic residents at Drumcree, three young brothers, whose mother was a Catholic, were burned alive in a loyalist petrol-bomb attack on the home in Antrim. Soon afterward, the LVF called a halt to its campaign of sectarian terror, and support for the Orange hardliners at Drumcree collapsed.

Divided UUP

However, problems remained. The Ulster Unionist Party was dangerously divided and their leader, David Trimble, continued to appease his party opponents by insisting that the paramilitaries must begin to disarm before their representatives would be allowed to take their seats in the new executive. This sharply divided his party from the nationalists and from both governments. The result was that the Oct. 31 deadline for the setting up of the "shadow" executive, at which time the scope and number of the ministerial departments and cross-border bodies were supposed to have been determined, went by without a resolution of the decommissioning dispute.

Unlike the others that preceded it, the latest crisis was not about finding a solution but implementing an agreed settlement, and it came at an unfortunate time for Trimble. It was announced that he was to share the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with SDLP leader John Hume. It was not the time to strut the stage as an intransigent Unionist.

Finally, in the early hours of Dec. 18, the impasse was resolved. nationalist and unionist agreed that there should be 10 ministerial departments and six cross-border bodies. The question of filling the posts was left to a later date. Later that day, the LFV handed over nine guns, about 400 rounds of ammunition, six detonators and a few pipe-bombs to the decommissioning body. It was the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict that a paramilitary group voluntarily disarmed.

1998 began with the sound of machine gun fire. It ended with the sounds of a metal-cutting machine grinding through the barrel of a gun, and the clank of the fragments as they were thrown into the dust bin.

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