‘It is about sharing ... not about winning’ - SDLP veteran Bríd Rodgers fears talk of a united Ireland

Veteran nationalist politician reflects on the progress made since referendums, North and South, were passed endorsing the landmark Belfast Agreement peace deal a quarter-century ago this week

Twenty-five years ago, and just a couple of weeks shy of Good Friday 1998, Bríd Rodgers in an Irish Times interview spoke with prescience borne of hard experience.

A deal would be done, she predicted, but she had one qualification: “I think there will be a settlement if the will to compromise prevails over the fear of compromise.”

Which is what happened. People and politicians wanted release from a 30-year conflict and for once they seized the day, made the difficult compromises, and the deal was sealed.

This week marks the 25th anniversary since the referendums, North and South, that overwhelmingly endorsed Northern Ireland’s landmark peace deal.


However, 25 years on, the SDLP no longer commands the dominance within nationalism that the party once enjoyed during the period when Rodgers was in politics and the Belfast Agreement was signed. In the North’s local elections last week, the SDLP performed poorly, dropping to fifth place in the ranking of parties, following the loss of 20 seats. Once Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, the SDLP now holds 39 seats across the North’s 11 councils, compared with Sinn Féin’s 144.

Looking back, the 1998 peace deal was an enormous achievement but it took many years to arrive at that destination. Rodgers is a hardy 88 now and her life is reflective and very central to that arduous, exciting journey, one that she travelled right from the very start as a civil rights campaigner and later as one of the leaders of the SDLP. Most of those party colleagues that blazed the same rocky trail are now dead – John and Pat Hume, Seamus Mallon, Austin Currie, Eddie McGrady, Ivan Cooper and many others. She has vivid, sustaining memories of all of them.

In 1965 at the urgings of the Dungannon-based civil rights activists Dr Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia she and her husband Antoin, also a native of Gweedore and then practising as a dentist in Lurgan, got involved in the Campaign for Social Justice, precursor of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

The civil rights campaign exposed how there was discrimination in areas such as jobs and housing, in the gerrymandered voting system, and in the special powers legislation.

Her first job was to compile statistics on unionist discrimination of Catholics in Lurgan. An early discovery was that while there were Catholic nurses employed in the local Craigavon hospital only one was a sister, and “that was because she was prepared to work night shifts”. There were no Catholic clerical officers or managers on the local council although there was a Catholic cleaning woman employed at the council swimming pool and one of the town hall caretakers was a Catholic.

Rodgers led the first NICRA march through Lurgan in 1969 which prompted an orthodontist who used to come to Antoin’s surgery as an extra service for Antoin’s patients to cancel all future consultations “because of that bitch who led the rebel march through Lurgan”.

Antoin lost a lot of Protestant patients but “in fairness there was an awful lot who stayed with him”.

And bigotry manifested itself in smaller ways too. Antoin, a member of the local club, was a good golfer. As a native Irish speaker he had pledged to himself if he ever won one of the club’s perpetual trophies he would have his name inscribed in Irish. He duly won the prize and his name, Antoin Mac Ruairi, was scripted on to the silverware. This caused consternation in the club and a request to Antoin to remove his name.

“’No, it’s not OK’, he said. ‘Why would you take it off?’ And the reply he got was: ‘The Lisburn ones are laughing at us.’ That was their only reason for taking it off. I don’t think his name was ever put on in Irish or English.

“And ‘Antoin Mac Ruairi’ was how he signed his cheques when paying his annual membership fees to the club. Nobody objected to that!”

One late night in the golf club in June 1966 while Antoin and others were enjoying a ‘19th hole’ drink word came through of the murder of 18-year-old Catholic Peter Ward outside a pub off the Shankill Road. Viewed as one of the first murders of the Troubles, it was carried out by a UVF gang led by Gusty Spence.

“This man who was a consultant surgeon at the top of his voice said: ‘It’s too good for them, they should all be put against the wall and shot.’ Those were his very words. Antoin stood up and walked out. Nobody said anything, nobody objected.”

Bríd Rodgers wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of her husband with the result that the consultant was asked to explain himself to the club’s governing board. “But rather than do that he resigned from Lurgan Golf Club and joined Portadown. So that was that.”

But over the years attitudes began to change and a new protocol was introduced whereby alternate Protestant and Catholic members would take on the honoured position of captain. Antoin was asked would he be vice-captain to be in post for the captaincy the following year. But then he got an anonymous letter from someone saying he had no right to be captain because he was a “troublemaker”, and that if he “pulled out there’d be no more about it”.

“So he told his friend, Billy, a Protestant, who had nominated him, what had happened and Billy said: ‘If you pull out I will never talk to you again.’ So he didn’t pull out and he became captain and that worked out fine.”

Antoin and Bríd did some graphology sleuthing on the handwritten letter and they were “90 per cent certain” it was another professional man, since dead, who lived in the town.

Rodgers reflects on this discrimination and sectarianism without any rancour, matter-of-factly explaining what life was like before the agitation for civil rights began achieving success in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

She was involved in the SDLP, a natural political successor to NICRA, from its formation in 1970 but with six children and a family to rear she gradually took a back seat from frontline politics. Later in the 1970s she wrote to John Hume complaining about some incident that happened in Lurgan. “What are you doing about it?” she asked.

“What are you doing about it?” Hume wrote back.

That prompted her to re-enter the political fray. Articulate, quietly combative and personable she rose through the party ranks leading her to the position of deputy leader of the SDLP and one of the party’s senior negotiators in the long series of talks on the road to Good Friday 1998. She was minister of agriculture in the first Northern Executive, her biggest challenge managing the foot and mouth disease crisis of 2001.

But getting to the point where powersharing finally was achieved demanded courage and commitment. Living in Lurgan in the heart of the Mid-Ulster “Murder Triangle” she was a hate figure for many loyalist paramilitaries. Her stance on behalf of Garvaghy Road nationalists in Portadown during the annual Drumcree parading convulsions of the mid-1990s only exacerbated that hostility.

Rodgers, however, comes from formidable stock. She was related to the Glenties writer Patrick MacGill and also a distant relative of Donegal native and New York-based mobster and hitman Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll who in a hail of bullets came to a sticky end in a cafe telephone kiosk in Manhattan in 1932 – so she could take the heat.

“I was threatened on many occasions. We had all sorts of security around the house. I was lucky I survived because so many people who were innocent didn’t.”

She was reared in Gweedore where her mother, Josie, owned the famous Hiudái Beag’s pub in Bunbeg. Her mother had studied dentistry in UCD in the 1920 – the only female student on the course – but had to give up her studies when what Rodgers described as a “chauvinistic doctor” decided she wasn’t well enough to complete her studies.

Rodgers also studied in UCD, completing an arts degree and embarking on a teaching career, first in Dublin and then Falcarragh in Co Donegal. She taught Italian, French and Irish. She knew Antoin from her childhood days and when they married she gave up her job and moved to Lurgan where he started his practice in 1960.

There is a famous TV clip from about 2am on Good Friday morning in 1998 of Bríd Rodgers silhouetted through the blinds of the window delightedly hugging her colleague Seamus Mallon in one of the rooms where the SDLP negotiating team was based in Castle Buildings, Stormont. That was after agreement was reached on how the Assembly should operate on a cross-community basis. “I had thought up to that stage the deal is not going to happen.”

That image was one of the first indications on that morning that a deal could be done. Up to that moment the mood was pessimistic. But there were still large obstacles to be shifted before the agreement was concluded around 5pm that day, chiefly among them prisoners, North-South bodies, the RUC and decommissioning.

But, as she said, primarily through the will for compromise overcoming the fear of compromise a historic agreement was reached.

It was the high point of Rodgers’s long career.

In short, says Rodgers, the Good Friday agreement was to cement the peace and promote reconciliation. The first part was achieved, but she is not so sure whether the second part has advanced very far.

“John [Hume], when he stood down, said that our job is to make sure that our young people grow up in a different society – sectarian-free, democratic. It was to ‘fulfil the untold promise of the Good Friday Agreement and build the new Ireland,’” she says.

“When I look back on it that was what the agreement was about. It was about building together in partnership. But I think the whole thing went pear-shaped after the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 when the leadership had moved from the committed parties who had taken all the risks, the UUP and the SDLP, to the DUP and Sinn Féin. I think then that reconciliation took a back seat.

“Tribalism suits the DUP and Sinn Féin better. I don’t think they really believe in the principles of partnership. They work to their own separate agendas. As far as I am concerned there is nothing wrong with the agreement, although it has its flaws, it’s the people now running the agreement.”

With groups such as Ireland’s Future pushing for an expedited poll on a united Ireland she worries too about what she feels is a tendency towards nationalist “triumphalism”.

“The more they talk of a united Ireland the more they make it difficult for unionists to engage. As Seamus Mallon said, it is about sharing, it is not about winning. I am afraid that the emphasis now is to make the unionists see: ‘You are screwed no matter what happens, so we are going to go ahead and there is going to be a united Ireland whether you like it or not.’ I think that is the attitude. And I don’t like it. I prefer Micheál Martin’s talk of a shared island,” she says.

She is quietly proud of what she achieved in politics and prouder still that it was the SDLP, despite its slump in nationalist support, who created the architecture and spearheaded the drive for a peaceful route away from violence and into powersharing politics. The template remains, she says, with John Hume who persuaded her back into cutting-edge politics. “John’s idea of a new Ireland is what we should be looking at.”

Antoin died two years ago. They were married for just over 60 years.

“I miss him. I’d hear something on the radio and I’d say to myself: ‘I must tell Antoin that.’ We always had something to talk about, he was very interested in politics,” she says.

Her two best friends in Lurgan also died around that time so she decided to sell up in Lurgan a year ago. She summers in Gweedore. “You can’t go out your door without meeting somebody you know or having somebody to talk to.” And she winters in Howth where she has bought an apartment. “I am three minutes away from my daughter Anne and about a mile away from [daughter] Mary.”

Of all her contemporary friends, colleagues and comrades who joined her on the long civil rights and SDLP march from the 1960s to Good Friday 1998 she says: “Life’s funny. They are mostly all gone now. I am nearly the last.”

Rodgers is in good health and still enjoying life. She has a vivid memory of Good Friday 1998 and the potency of what was achieved. Her family had decamped that Easter weekend from their house in Lurgan, Co Armagh, to their old holiday home in her native Gweedore

“When it was all over on Good Friday I hadn’t the energy to drive to Lurgan so I booked myself into the Wellington Park Hotel [in Belfast],” she recalls.

“I got up in the morning, did not take any breakfast, drove to Lurgan, picked up a few bits and pieces and drove straight to Donegal. And when I walked in the door I broke down, I just wept. That was the first time I realised the enormity of what had happened, after all the years of trying to establish a basis for peace and reconciliation I felt we had got there ... there was such a huge sense of relief as well. I started to cry, I couldn’t speak.”