My view of the August 1994 ceasefire was pretty straightforward.
It was a very public recognition by both the IRA and Sinn Fein that Ireland was never going to be united by violence: and it was also an equally public confirmation by the British and Irish governments (who had been in back channel contact for some time) that any settlement or agreement would require Sinn Fein’s imprimatur.
The ceasefire also put unionism—all of it—on the back foot.
Jim Molyneaux, leader of the UUP, worried that “a prolonged IRA ceasefire could be the most destabilising thing to happen to unionism since partition.”
Ian Paisley warned that there would have to be “truth” from the IRA as well as a “period of quarantine” before Sinn Fein could be allowed to enter any talks process.
The reality, of course, is that this moment had been coming for a very long time. Right back to the 1972 Green Paper insistence on “power sharing and an Irish dimension”, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, it was clear that both governments wanted a deal that could be underwritten by all sides.
And since they weren’t ever going to be able to finish off “armed republicanism” it was inevitable that Sinn Fein (after approval from the IRA) would be included at some point.
It also struck me—and I wrote about it at the time—that “while this may be the most important ceasefire since PIRA emerged in 1969/70, it probably won’t be their last ceasefire.”
Things were never going to move fast enough for the IRA’s liking, and unionism certainly wasn’t going to roll over and accept the ceasefire at face value.
So while it is worth remembering the significance of August 1994 (because it did represent the biggest ever step to all-party talks) it is also worth remembering that the ceasefire ended on February 9, 1996 and wasn’t renewed until July 20, 1997.
So, where are we today? How much has Northern Ireland moved since August 1994; and are we in a demonstrably better place now than we were then? Well, the very fact that we aren’t dealing with the grim, daily reminders of a terrorist campaign is worth celebrating.
It may have become a cliché to say that people are alive now who wouldn’t be had the terrorism continued, but it is, nevertheless, a welcome fact.
The absence of troops and checkpoints has given a normalcy to life that my generation didn’t experience.
We don’t tune in to the radio/television news first thing in the morning and last thing at night to keep up to date with shootings and explosions.
People in their mid-twenties can ask their parents “what was it really like before the ceasefires.” That is good. And in that sense life here has improved.
Mind you, the 1998 chorus of “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time” now sounds very hollow.
And while jaw-jaw is certainly preferable to war-war, some of the blows we land with words and press statements are just as damaging as those landed by bloodier, more brutal methods.
No one would describe our political/governance process as anywhere close to ‘normal’ and the hoped-for “new era of cross-community politics” has been abandoned in favour of more fixed points and increasing polarity.
Twenty years on and we are parked, awkwardly, somewhere between where we didn’t want to be (when terrorism was a daily occurrence) and where we hoped to be (a normal government dealing with bread and butter realities).
It’s certainly a better place: but it’s still not the sort of place that many of us would encourage our children to stay in.
Twenty years ago the tired politicians of the last generation established a framework for the “something better” Northern Ireland needed.
If that job is to be finished then it will require new voices, new thinking, new hope and broader ambitions. Peace may come “dropping slow,” but if we allow it to become too slow we run the risk of it coming to a full stop.
There’s still a lot of work to be done here.
* Read Alex Kane’s News Letter column every Monday