Thursday, 28 June 2012

Day 225 - A Powerful Handshake

My 7 year old asked me why the Queen shaking someone's hand was the top story on the news. It's a fair question, but where to start? I'm from Northern Ireland and I know how significant it is; how complicated it is.
Everything about Northern Ireland is complicated.

The peace process has carried us so far, but for some on both sides of the divide, the handshake with Martin McGuinness was impossible to stomach; the wounds left by the Troubles are too deep, it hurt like betrayal. Progress can painful. Yet I heard one republican say that as hard as it was, this day had to come.

If someone told me back in 1993 that this day would come, I'd never have believed it. I had just started working as a radio reporter at the BBC in Belfast. A few days into the job the IRA blew up a fish and chip shop on the Shankill road, killing 9 people and one of the bombers - kicking off another brutal and bloody cycle of violence.

This became the pattern. The newsroom was on standby, waiting for that next police alert, the next victim. Then the rush to get eye-witness accounts, knocking on doors, and going to funerals. Grief and heartache: anger and hatred.

When the ceasefires came out of this darkness it was an incredible, hopeful time. The pieces fell into place, laying the path to the Good Friday Agreement. All the archive footage brings back such strong memories: frantic, challenging - history in the making. It was amazing to have been part of it.

Northern Ireland seemed to have taken a giant step forward but there was no disguising the hard road ahead. In a way everything had changed but nothing had changed. Republican and Unionist views were as entrenched as ever, yet the process had started. The Omagh bomb shook it to it's core; one of the saddest, bleakest days I can remember, but people had tasted peace - they came together and made it clear there was no going back.

Progress has been slow, occasionally grinding to a halt - but somehow politicians on both sides found a thread of common ground. Then came the milestones: decommissioning weapons; power-sharing at Stormont; Sinn Fein and the DUP once sworn enemies, in the same room, working together, even laughing together; and the Queen's visit to Dublin last year.

The vast majority in Northern Ireland have taken all this in their stride; not always happy about each step, but they've an eye on the future: yet there are some who will be forever caught up in the past, too scarred by 30 years of violence or soaked in bitterness and hatred. This restless undercurrent will be there for a long time to come. But the peace process has proved to have a momentum of its own, inching forward to the next milestone. There seems to be an inevitability about it now.

So much tied up in a handshake, already heralded as a symbol of peace. But what's also telling is that Republican and Unionist politicians both claimed it as a victory. In many ways this ability to spin the same event to suit each side is what's got Northern Ireland to this point. This hopeful, peaceful point.


  1. Let's hope the process does keep inching forward.

    1. There have been some horrific reminders of the Troubles. We were stationed in Lisburn when the two soldiers were shot outside the barracks in Antrim in 2009 - but the overwhelming will is for the process to stay on track.

    2. Horrible - my OH was only there for 2 months, spent a lot of time up the top of radio masts, horribly exposed, which I hated. He came back and it took about 6 months for him to stop checking under the car every time we needed to go somewhere. And we had a friend who was there when the barracks were blown up in Lisburn. The thing is that a lot of the most recent stuff isn't getting reported any more so you kind of get an idea that there's NO trouble any more which isn't true. Have you read martin Bell's autobiuography? I know he was there earlier, but his writing about Northern Ireland was really fascinating.

    3. Yes, it's an insightful read. You're right about things not making the news over here, which probably gives the impression there's nothing much going on anymore. It's still busy over there for police and others. Think there'll be unrest/bitterness bubbling under the surface in parts of NI for generations. Sometimes it breaks through, often in the summer. But for most people going about their day to day lives it's so different than it used to be.