Both sides of the Irish border mark a quarter century since the Good Friday Agreement. But can a divide that lasted generations be permanently bridged?
Royal Ulster Constabulary Police officers stand on Market Street, the scene of a car bombing in the centre of Omagh, Co Tyrone, 72 miles west of Belfast, Northern Ireland on 15 August 1998. (AP Photo / Paul McErlane)
When I think back to the years I reported on Northern Ireland’s conflict, it’s not the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement on 10 April 1998 — 25 years ago — that I remember so much as the cycle of trauma, loss and resilience that I witnessed over and over.
The agreement was hailed as a historic victory after three decades of conflict that killed about 3,700 people and that was rooted in a dizzying puzzle of religious, cultural and national identities. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement with a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to both parts of the island.
I was in Belfast the day the agreement was signed. Having grown up not so far away in southwest Scotland, with a father of Irish Catholic heritage, I felt lifted by a wave of optimism and belief in the possibility of political processes.
I also remember feeling a strong emotional and cultural connection, even while I tried to maintain an objective distance as a Reuters correspondent.
Bombings and brutality are not forgotten.
But the details I remember best relate to the people who were hurt: the little boy with the hand-knitted pom pom hat trotting down a dark Belfast street past an ambulance that was carrying away the victim of the latest kneecapping, a medical tube visible through its back window; and Laurence Rush, who retold to reporters over and over the story of how he lost his beloved wife Libbi, blown up in the little market town of Omagh four months after the peace deal was signed.
Until his death in March 2012 at the age of 70, Rush helped to keep the world’s eyes on his town, devastated by the bomb that killed 29 people, making it the deadliest single attack of “The Troubles.”
In October 1998, when I woke Rush up to tell him the Nobel Peace Prize had gone to John Hume, the moderate Catholic leader credited with bringing the IRA’s political allies to the negotiating table, and Ulster Unionist Protestant leader David Trimble, he thought of his wife first. “My Libbi would have wanted this,” he said.
Then he thought of Hume, Trimble and the implementation of the peace process. “I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “I would like to embrace them both.”
But over the subsequent years, delays in finding answers to questions about official responsibility for the Omagh bomb tested even Rush and showed why justice — and peace — can take years or generations to surface, if they emerge at all. This helps explain why so many people worry about the threat Brexit now poses to the peace deal.
Many people were emotionally vested in the conflict but more sought peace.
When Rush died, as my friend and investigative journalist Ruth O’Reilly wrote at the time, the solicitor who represented him in his fight for justice called for a final reckoning. O’Reilly said no one had been successfully convicted over the bombing. It took until February of this year for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to announce an independent statutory inquiry into whether the bombing could have been prevented.
That decision came 16 months after the High Court in Belfast urged new investigations, noting that in the six months running up to the bombing, there had been 24 attacks by dissidents, many of them featuring suspects who later were involved in Omagh.
Such was the awareness of the threat from IRA dissidents at the time that journalist after journalist — myself included — wrote stories warning of violence from hardliners who opposed the IRA’s truce and were set against the peace process.
I quoted an Irish republican source who at once dismissed half the dissidents as “just teenagers” who did not know what it meant to fight a war, yet at the same time warned they might succeed in killing people nonetheless. And I quoted a security who official portentously saying the dissidents “seem to be getting it together.”
Looking back, as is so often the case, it was like an unfolding train wreck that could not be stopped, but with the benefit of hindsight, might just have been.
Seen from the perspective of 25 years, I think now that even when the eyes of the world’s media are glued to a peace process or conflict because it affects the most powerful governments, some lives get counted more than others. And some are never counted at all.
The lesson I draw from that is that in journalism, we owe it to the people we cover to commemorate every life lost as best we can, even while knowing we can never do enough.
Questions to consider:
- Why are some international conflicts covered more in the press than others?
- Do you think media organizations cover conflicts well? What would you like to tell the world’s news editors do to improve this? What role do you think audiences play in that process?
- What do you think about the author’s conclusions about the responsibilities of a journalist?
Elaine Monaghan has worked for two decades in international journalism. For Reuters, she was a correspondent in Russia; chief correspondent in Ukraine and Belarus, and in Ireland and Northern Ireland; and U.S. State Department correspondent in Washington. She joined The Times in 2002 as Washington correspondent before moving to the Congressional Quarterly. Currently she is professor of practice at Indiana University’s Media School and serves as a freelance editor for Reuters.