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Tuesday, December 22, 1998 Published at 16:58 GMT

Northern Ireland: An historic year

Omagh was devastated by a bombing - but the peace process survived

The omens for peace in Northern Ireland did not look good as 1998 dawned. Talks were meant to be going on, but the dominant theme was a wave of killings sparked by the murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison over Christmas.

Review of the Year
Such was the mood that on New Year's Day 1998, the Primate of the Church of Ireland, Dr Robin Eames, was moved to predict "dark days ahead" for the province.

Mo's gamble pays off

Also damaging was the announcement by loyalists in the Maze that they had no confidence in the peace process which led to fears for the ceasefire.

[ image: Mo Mowlam's trip to the Maze marked a turning point]
Mo Mowlam's trip to the Maze marked a turning point
This problem was resolved by Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, who risked her personal credibility by visiting loyalist terrorists in prison and persuading them to withdraw their opposition to the talks.

With this boost, the British and Irish governments put forward a new blueprint for peace in the middle of January, which was welcomed by the main parties, but rejected by the IRA.

Sinn Fein was considering walking out of the negotiations, but on the other hand republicans were encouraged by the announcement at the end of the month of a new inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings of 1972. This body eventually began its work in April with a promise to be thorough and impartial.

Talking on, walking out

[ image: Factions in both sides remained uninterested in peace]
Factions in both sides remained uninterested in peace
The talks, meanwhile, were being tossed off course after the police implicated the Ulster Freedom Fighters terrorist group in the New Year killings.

The UFF denied any blame but its representatives at the talks, the Ulster Democratic Party, had to go. In the end, the party walked out rather than be kicked out.

If that wasn't bad enough, a similar - but more dangerous - situation arose in February. The UDP was just being welcomed back after a six-week suspension, when the police accused the IRA of being involved in two murders. The IRA denied the charge and Sinn Fein argued vehemenently against being excluded from the talks.

The republicans even took legal action in their attempts to remain at the table but to no avail - on 20 February Sinn Fein was suspended from the talks until 9 March.

A large car bomb which exploded in Portadown added yet more doubts.

At a crossroads

[ image: Police stand guard over the scene of the Poyntzpass shooting]
Police stand guard over the scene of the Poyntzpass shooting
During this hiatus, there occurred the first of three terrorist incidents in 1998 which not only attracted almost universal condemnation but also influenced the course of events .

Loyalist gunmen walked into a pub in the quiet village of Poyntzpass on 3 March and opened fire, killing two men.

One was a Catholic, the other a Protestant. Not only had they been lifelong friends, but one was soon to have been best man at the other's wedding.

At their funerals, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady, said Northern Ireland was at a crossroads and people could choose the path of the bomb and the bullet, or the path of peace.

The 'hard men' knew only one route and one of the three men arrested for the crime was killed in the Maze - apparently to stop him confessing.

Time for decision

The republicans had still not returned to the negotiating table, but impetus for that was gained during informal talks around St Patrick's Day in the US, where President Clinton helped nudge the peace process forward by calling on all sides to "seize the chance for peace".

Less than a week later, Sinn Fein was back at the talks - albeit amid unionist protests - and the negotiators bent to their task of coming up with an agreement acceptable to all parties.

Their minds were concentrated by the talks' chairman, Senator George Mitchell, who set a deadline of 9 April, saying it was now "time for decision".

Agreement on Good Friday

As the talks went on, it became apparent that getting the Ulster Unionist Party to sign up was paramount.

The Prime Minister placed his personal authority behind the plan, staying in Belfast to talk personally to UUP leader David Trimble. Mr Blair was joined in his efforts by his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, and assisted on the phone by President Clinton.

The deadline of 9 April came and went with the sides still locked in tense, dramatic discussions, but by the following day, Good Friday, an historic agreement had been reached.

The people decide

[ image: The referendum campaign got underway...]
The referendum campaign got underway...
It was now up to the people of Northern Ireland to approve or reject the deal their representatives had reached and the battle to win the hearts and minds of the voters began immediately.

Both sides knew that a bare majority in favour would not be enough - a resounding margin was needed.

There were various key groups which had to be won over to the proposals.

The Ulster Unionist Party was divided by the deal. Leader David Trimble received party backing but influential members such as MP Jeffrey Donaldson remained in the No camp.

On the unionist side, most of the loyalist paramilitaries backed the Northern Ireland Agreement, but the Loyalist Volunteer Force rejected it. Also in the No camp were Ian Paisley's DUP and the Orange Order.

On the nationalist side, the SDLP was already behind the agreement and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams counselled his members to "think of the future" when deciding which way to vote.

The support of prisoners on both sides was thought to be crucial and convicted IRA terrorists such as the Balcombe Street gang and Michael Stone, the loyalist Milltown Cemetery murderer, were freed briefly to appear at rallies in favour of the deal.

In retrospect, the Yes campaigners realised that this was a potentially disastrous mistake, with public opinion hardening against the perpetrators of such notorious crimes. Tony Blair spoke of his revulsion at the Stone rally and Mr Adams admitted he had misjudged public opinion over the Balcombe Street gang.

[ image: ...and 'Yes' campaigners made their voices clearly heard.]
...and 'Yes' campaigners made their voices clearly heard.
This was the lowest period of the Yes campaign and the polls showed healthy opposition to the deal, plus large numbers of undecided voters. Gradually, however, the momentum shifted with the weight of diverse interests such as pop groups U2 and Ash, and President Clinton voicing their support for peace.

In the final days of campaigning, Mr Blair gave wavering unionist voters his personal, handwritten guarantee that nothing would change without their consent and that terrorists would be kept locked up unless they renounced violence for good.

On 22 May, people in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic went to the polls to decide their future.

In the privacy of the polling booth, they marked their ballot either in favour of radical change, a step into the unknown and possible peace; or they decided to stay with the status quo, the Troubles they knew rather than the chance of greater troubles in the future.

The result became known the following day. The Republic, as expected, had been massively in favour of the deal, but Northern Ireland had voted 71.12% in favour of the agreement - far higher than anyone had dared to predict.

It's Yes
Reaction to the vote in favour of the agreement

Fighting to dominate the assembly

[ image: The UUP's David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland]
The UUP's David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland
After the drama of the referendum, the campaign for the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly seemed almost lacklustre.

One issue which reared its head, however, was that of arms decommissioning, something which was to return with greater significance later in the year, though in a slightly different guise.

The Conservatives broke the long-standing Westminster consensus by voting against the release of convicted terrorist prisoners on the grounds that there was no guarantee that weapons would be handed over in return.

After the unity of the Yes campaign, the traditional bitterness between the SDLP and Sinn Fein re-emerged as the two parties fought for pre-eminence on the nationalist wing.

UUP leader David Trimble's authority had been enhanced by the strong Yes vote, but he was concerned that not enough people would turn out and that the Assembly would contain enough representatives opposed to the deal to wreck it.

This, in fact, was the main point at issue, but when the results were all in those whom Mr Trimble described as "wreckers" had failed to win enough seats and the Assembly was made up with about three-quarters of its members in favour of the Northern Ireland Agreement.

As leader of the largest party, David Trimble became First Minister. The SDLP was the second biggest group but its leader, John Hume, stepped aside to allow his number two, Seamus Mallon, to become Mr Trimble's deputy.

Dark days again

[ image: Orangemen gathered at the standoff in Drumcree]
Orangemen gathered at the standoff in Drumcree
No sooner had democracy triumphed, however, than Northern Ireland seemed to be back to normal with violence in the streets and the men of violence in control of events.

Enough unionists might have voted for peace to make a majority, but there were plenty of loyalists determined to defend what they saw as their historic rights - and chief among these was the right to march.

The Protestant marching season had started in April but had passed off peacefully at first, even in contentious areas such as Belfast's Lower Ormeau Road.

The real problem erupted to the surface at the end of June, when the Parade Commission's decision to ban the Orange march down Garvaghy Road in Portadown to the church at Drumcree was announced two days after the assembly results.

The Orangemen were outraged and said they would defy the ruling. A line had been drawn in the sand and the Orangemen were determined to cross it.

On 5 June, Orange Order members marched but were prevented by the security forces from reaching Drumcree. A siege developed around the church and that night violence erupted across Northern Ireland.

This pattern continued for several nights, bringing back memories of the worst of the Troubles and turning city centres such as Belfast into ghost towns by night. There were fears of organised loyalist strikes on the lines of the 1974 power workers' action that destroyed the Sunningdale agreement and talks seemed to be getting nowhere.

The Drumcree standoff
Denis Murray reports

Victims or saviours?

[ image: Of the Quinn brothers, only Lee (center) survived the ghastly attack]
Of the Quinn brothers, only Lee (center) survived the ghastly attack
No solution was in sight and the violence was, if anything, getting worse.

The climax of the marching season - the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne - was approaching.

Then, on the night of 11-12 July, there was an arson attack on a house in Ballymoney, County Antrim.

Three brothers aged between eight and 11 - Jason, Mark and Richard Quinn - were killed. Ironically, although their mother was Catholic, the boys had been brought up as Protestants.

Victims of intolerance
Denis Murray reports on the funeral of the Quinn brothers

It was the second terrorist atrocity of 1998 to have a profound effect on Northern Ireland. People were sickened at the thought and asked themselves whether the right to walk along a particular stretch of road dressed in a bowler hat and orange sash was worth the lives of three young boys.

One of those who decided it was not was the Rev William Bingham, a senior chaplain in the Orange Order, who joined the calls for the order to return home. The Order was defiant, declaring that the murderers of the Quinn boys were not Orangemen, and they marched as far as the troops allowed them.

But the impetus for the protest had been lost, the moral authority of defending traditional rights had been dispersed by the widespread disgust, and cracks were appearing within the Order.

The Orange masses were drifting away from Drumcree and the RUC took the chance and moved in. The police arrested 20 people and seized weapons used to attack them from within the area of the protest. As the number of protesters dwindled, extra troops shipped in to deal with the crisis were sent home.

Drumcree had been defused, though trouble was to flare again before the end of the year.

The worst and hopefully the last

There was one atrocity of even greater significance still to shatter the people of Northern Ireland. With hopes so high that the Troubles of the previous 30 years were almost over, it was a savage irony that the worst terrorist act of the entire period should come in what looked like the final act.

[ image: The Omagh attack took the lives of 29 people]
The Omagh attack took the lives of 29 people
On Saturday, 15 August, a car bomb exploded in the market town of

The death toll was ultimately 29 - the highest of the Troubles and the horror and shame was universal.

The worst atrocity
Gareth Jones reports from Omagh

The culprits were the Real IRA, a splinter group of republicans unhappy with the IRA's gradual acceptance of the peace process. The Real IRA tried to apologise for the death toll, saying it had sent in coded warnings giving the location of the bomb.

This version of events was refuted by the security forces, who released tapes of the warnings which were vague and imprecise. Whether or not the terrorists had wanted to get the area cleared, the ultimate effect was that people ended up being herded towards, rather than away from, the bomb.

A town shattered
David Sillito looks at the impact of the bomb on a quiet town

The wave of revulsion was even stronger than that which followed the Quinn killings and the Real IRA eventually announced a ceasefire. This move reportedly followed meetings between its members and the IRA proper, at which the renegades were told to back down - or face the consequences.

The governments of the Irish Republic and the UK took the opportunity to bring in new anti-terrorist legislation generally agreed to be 'draconian', despite voices arguing that it was unnecessary and potentially counter-productive.

One of those who visited Omagh in the wake of the bombing was President Clinton, who said that the tragedy showed the importance of decommissioning terrorist weapons.

Decomissioning - the major hurdle

This issue had been bubbling beneath the surface for most of the year and remains largely unresolved as Northern Ireland moves into 1999.

In the first half of the year, decommissioning was linked mainly to concern over the release of prisoners, more than 400 of whom qualified under the Good Friday Agreement.

[ image: Hume (L) and Trimble (R) hear their Nobel citations]
Hume (L) and Trimble (R) hear their Nobel citations
Now that the prisoner releases are well under way, however, the battleground has shifted to how terrorist weapons affect the make-up of the Northern Ireland Executive.

UUP leader and First Minister David Trimble argues that the IRA must give up some of its weapons before Sinn Fein can take up the two ministries to which it is entitled by the level of its electoral support. Sinn Fein, however, has repeatedly pointed out that the agreement contains no such link.

"The IRA must decommission"
Denis Murray reports on David Trimble's pursuit of Sinn Fein

"The IRA won't do it"
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness explains

In October, Mr Trimble and the SDLP's John Hume were awarded the Nobel peace prize but the decommissiong impasse remained.

Profile of John Hume
Profile of David Trimble

The following month, Tony Blair made the first speech by a UK prime minister to the Irish parliament, the Dail, since independence in 1922. In it, he said that everyone had gone too far to turn back towards violence.

The two sides did not appear to be listening, however, each accusing the other of trying to wreck the agreement. Talks at Downing Street failed to end the deadlock.

Setbacks and progress

In his Nobel acceptance speech in December, David Trimble emphasised the need for a breakthrough on the issue.

Hopes that the IRA might break the logjam were dashed soon after, however, when its ruling council announced it would not hand in a single weapon. This was a severe blow to the peace process and it looked as though the year would end on a very low note indeed.

But as Christmas approached, two breakthroughs occurred which gave some momentum back to the process.

First, the parties reached agreement on the structure of the new assembly and cross-border implementation bodies. The issue of the make-up of the executive remained bound up in decommissioning, but the deal represented progress.

[ image: The first weapons are destroyed]
The first weapons are destroyed
Second, the Loyalist Volunteer Force terrorist group handed over some of its weapons to be destroyed.

Sinn Fein was negative about whether the IRA would respond in kind, arguing that maintaining its ceasefire was enough.

That is almost certainly not the case and much work needs to be done. But at the end of an historic year, the people of Northern Ireland can still look forward to the final year of the millennium with greater optimism for the future than for any time in living memory.

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