It may seem obscene to say so, but the Troubles went on so long because they were not bad enough. Between 1976 and the loyalist ceasefire in October 1994, there were, on average, 86 deaths a year – a murder rate far lower than most big American cities.
There was also a kind of dire equilibrium. The British were not going to defeat the IRA; the IRA was not going to drive “the Brits” into the sea.
In this balance of evil, every tit had its tat. The loyalist paramilitaries could murder Catholics in supposed retaliation for republican atrocities and republicans could retaliate for the retaliation.
The conflict defied the laws of physics, both creating and destroying its own energies, powered by the nihilism of zero-sum games. Systems of containment – army, police, spies, surveillance, special courts, special laws, H-Blocks – had bedded themselves in over the decades, creating their own dead weight of insane inertia.
There were also systems of psychological containment. People had learned to live with the horror, to avoid the pain of hoping for anything other than the most basic aspiration that they and their loved ones would not be killed or maimed.
If you met Hume in the early 1990s, he often seemed edgy and depressed, his nerve ends frayed. By opening talks with Gerry Adams, he had taken on the burden of trying to stop the killing
The public figure, more than any other, who seemed to bear the weight of this weariness was John Hume, leader of the SDLP, which had the support of most Catholics in the North and of almost all the parties in the South.
If you met Hume in the early 1990s, he often seemed edgy and depressed, his nerve ends frayed. By opening talks with Sinn Féin’s president, Gerry Adams, he had taken on the burden of trying to stop the killing.
For a lot of the time, the only thanks he got was abuse. Sinn Féin still mocked him, claiming that his party’s acronym stood for Stoop Down Low Party. Many of its opponents portrayed Hume as a useful idiot for the IRA.
Even his admirers talked about “Humespeak”, his constant repetition of the same messages. He was trying, by the force of endless repetition, to change the language of Irish nationalism. A united Ireland became an “agreed Ireland”. It was people that must be united, not territory. There was no “solution”, just a “process”.
And he won. Hume was the intellectual and moral architect of the Belfast Agreement.
This is not for a moment to suggest that he did it on his own or that he could have achieved anything if a whole constellation of stars had not aligned. Indeed, the somewhat scary thing about the agreement is that it owed more than a momentous turning point on Irish history should do to timing and luck.
The timing was generational. The very fact that the Troubles had shown they could just go on and on meant that the generation that kept them going from the early 1970s could look into a future in which their kids, and maybe their grandkids, were living the same lives, committing the same atrocities, enduring the same risks of imprisonment.
They had to either stop it now or pass the torch of mayhem to a new generation. And for what? A quarter of a century of violence had merely clarified that Britain could not pull out of Northern Ireland under duress; that Catholics could not be made to lie down by loyalist terror; that no amount of patrolling and surveillance was ever going to pacify Crossmaglen or Ballymurphy.
It became possible for Albert Reynolds as taoiseach and John Major as prime minister, to strip the emotion out of negotiation and to understand the Troubles as a shared problem
The only thing that could change was politics. Sinn Féin had, through the H-Block campaigns of the early 1980s, stumbled into the realisation that, if people were not being asked to vote for IRA atrocities, they might be willing to vote in meaningful numbers for the party. There was a strategic way out: more ballot box, less Armalite.
There was also what now seems a sad irony: the joint membership of the European Union that had accustomed British and Irish diplomats and politicians to working together as equals. It became possible, in particular, for Albert Reynolds as taoiseach and John Major as prime minister, to strip the emotion out of negotiation and to understand the Troubles as a shared problem for which there would have to be an entirely shared solution.
The other element of luck (from an Irish point of view) was Bill Clinton’s accession to the US presidency in 1993.
One way to see Clinton’s contribution is that he added the glamour that Reynolds and Major had successfully subtracted. It was crucial to the mechanics of agreement that the British and Irish negotiators were nuts-and-bolts dealmakers (whose ranks were joined in 1997 by the supreme fixer Bertie Ahern).
But getting the deal done within Northern Ireland required a sense of moment, a notion of the epic. Clinton’s personal interest, and at times his personal presence, provided that.
Any US president getting involved would have created a vital international dimension that lifted the search for a deal high above the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone. But Clinton had his own dimension: an extraordinary ability to make his audiences feel loved and understood.
He fixed that gaze on Northern Ireland and kept it there. He also realised that, since Northern Ireland’s politicians would try the patience of a saint, he had better send us one in the form of George Mitchell, who chaired the talks with immense skill, intelligence and endurance. For that, he will always be one of Ireland’s greatest outside benefactors.
The alignment of these stars – and the arrival of Tony Blair, then in his untarnished prime and with a huge parliamentary majority – created the conditions for what might, without diminishing it, be called a conjuring act.
It can be called that because, in many respects, the shape of the deal was as predictable as the rabbit in the magician’s hat. Much of it had been on the table since the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973.
The main ingredients were already familiar. The sharing of power in Belfast between unionists and nationalists. Cross-Border bodies on the island that would deal with relatively noncontentious issues of co-operation but nonetheless establish an “Irish dimension” to appease nationalist aspirations to unity.
Britain would acknowledge that Northern Ireland would stay in the United Kingdom only so long as a majority of its citizens wished it to do so; the Republic of Ireland would accept that a United Ireland could come about only with the consent of that same majority.
Part of the conjuring act was to wipe out the memory that all of this had indeed been agreed long before and to allow Sinn Féin and the loyalists to present it to their own constituents as new – and thus claim great breakthroughs that justified doing the deal now.
Not everyone could forbear from pointing out that this was, as the SDLP’s doughty Seamus Mallon, put it, “Sunningdale for slow learners”. And for those who did hold their tongues, there was a great deal to swallow.
Thus – and there have been long-term consequences to this – Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were allowed to claim to their members and supporters that the IRA’s “armed struggle” had been vindicated because the Brits had now been forced to concede that Northern Ireland is not an integral part of the UK.
But the British had in fact put this precise position into law in 1973. If this was the price for ending its armed campaign, all the suffering over almost a quarter of a century was superfluous.
If anything, the major concession on constitutional issues was made by Irish nationalism: the Irish government agreed (and so did the Irish people in a referendum) to drop the constitutional claim on Northern Ireland and enshrine the principle of consent.
But eliding all of this was all part of the ambiguity necessary to the agreement. The genius of its drafting lay in its exquisitely careful balancing of concessions to the claims of both nationalism and unionism.
This is, however, also its weakness. The logic of dealmaking is that “both sides” have to be happy enough – a logic that is implicitly binary.
Here, the agreement is ambiguous in a less than helpful sense. On the one hand, it refers to “both communities” in Northern Ireland, meaning that there are only two. The architecture of devolution has been hugely problematic because it embodies this idea, giving power to the largest unionist and nationalist parties.
On the other hand, the agreement, in the very same article, refers to “all the people [of Northern Ireland] in the diversity of their identities and traditions” – a much more open language that is reflected in the new text of the Irish Constitution. It accepts that there may be – as in fact there are – more than two identities and two traditions.
The agreement largely ended a conflict that could in principle still be going on. It is no admission of failure to say that it did not ‘solve’ anything – it created a context in which a process of peaceful change is possible
Both parts of Ireland are now much more plural than they were 25 years ago. Northern Ireland no longer has either a nationalist or a unionist majority, and its future will ultimately be decided by those who do not choose to identify themselves as either. The binary logic does not work in a nonbinary Ireland.
Yet, if we go back to the agreement’s progenitor, John Hume, we can recall that one of his mantras was the one about their being no solution, only process. The agreement largely ended a conflict that could in principle still be going on. It is no admission of failure to say that it did not “solve” anything – it created a context in which a process of peaceful change is possible.
It did that by accepting the grim realities of its time. Perhaps the real mark of its achievement is that, in spite of all the failures in its implementation, those realities have altered – not nearly as much as optimists hoped in 1998, but still mostly for the better.
If the Belfast Agreement no longer maps the Irish territory with sufficient accuracy, it is because, under its influence, the ground has shifted, slowly but irreversibly.