Though the mid 1980s began to bring the first signs of a sense of something closer to normality, especially compared to the incredibly troubled seventies, there was still the ever-present danger of violence at every turn.
Three years after the Anglo Irish Agreement and its “Ulster Says No” reaction from Ian Paisley and other unionists, the prospect of political and social reconciliation seemed a far off prospect, farther for sure than the looming 1990s.
1988 was a year of death in Aughnacloy, Gibraltar, Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, Lisburn, Ballygawley and other places.
It was also, however, a year for talking and meeting, most crucially between John Hume and Gerry Adams, the twin though far from identical pillars of that part of Northern Ireland society that envisaged a future that would be something other than the preserve of monolithic unionism.
Uproar from some quarters greeted the Hume/Adams encounters. What, even the milder critics sputtered, could these two men have to talk about against the backdrop of so much continued violence?
The answer would take ten more years to be made evident.
As a result of these two men taking political risks many saw as extreme, as a result of the timely and fortuitous intervention and support of other political leaders willing to take risks for peace, President Bill Clinton among them, the road from those first Hume/Adams encounters led to more talks, nods, winks, tacit understandings, disagreements demands, misunderstandings, rejections, and finally, in the springtime of 1998, a deal, an accord, an agreement.
Along the way there were political road markers, ruts and potholes. The Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 was a highlight, one that brought forward the declaration from the British government that it had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.
There followed the IRA ceasefire in 1994, the Joint Framework documents of the following year, the Mitchell Commission’s report on decommissioning, and, in what was a clear setback for political progress, the Canary Wharf bombing of February 1996, the blast that brought an end to the IRA’s cessation.
As it happened, however, even this was not going to derail the consequences of those earlier talks, meetings and markers.
What eventually emerged from the tortuous negotiations leading up to Good Friday, 1998 would be the seeds of an entirely new way of doing business in a divided society.
The Good Friday agreement contained proposals for a devolved power-sharing government, cross-broader bodies, a commission to review policing, a plan for the release of paramilitary prisoners and an equality agenda.
Again, it would take years – though not quite a full decade, for devolved government – for these ideas to root themselves in the life of a new Northern Ireland.
Even now, there are aspects of the agreement that need tamping down. But ten years after is better than ten years before, so much better than twenty. The next ten promises to be better still.