The event on Tuesday last week, at Queens University, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, was an opportunity to reminisce about the difficulties we all faced at that time, and the lessons for today.
An earlier event organised by Féile an Phobail at St. Mary’s College on the Falls Road put the spotlight on the positive and constructive role of the community and voluntary sector in the peace process. This aspect of the Good Friday Agreement and of the peace process has never been properly examined or appreciated. It was also particularly appropriate that Féile organised the event given that this year Féile celebrates its 30th birthday.
For those of you too young to remember west Belfast in 1988 was a militarised war zone. Heavily armed British troops and RUC officers occupied our streets. British Army and RUC forts like Jericho, Henry Taggart, Silver City, Pegasus, dominated the streetscape and main roads.
As part of their efforts at control the British constantly monitored the movement of people. The military bases on top of Divis Tower and the Nurses flats at Broadway, along with cameras on every fort and barracks, constantly observed people. House and street searches, military roadblocks and stop and search operations were a regular feature of life. And everything was noted for intelligence purposes. I remember the Brits boasting on one occasion of stopping three quarters of a million vehicles in one two-week period!
There was also the ever present threat of sectarian attack by unionist death squads, often operating in collusion with British state forces and the IRA was active. Conflict was a constant in the life of this community.
The catalyst for Féile was the killing in Gibraltar of three young IRA Volunteers from this area; Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann.In the two weeks that followed nine more people died - another four from this constituency. The people of this proud community were demonised and labelled by some as savages and animals. Féile an Phobail was our response to this. It was our way of demonstrating to the world that the people of west Belfast are a generous, humorous, talented, gifted and inclusive community.
We were lucky in one respect. The system of discrimination and inequality employed for decades by Unionists and the British had forced nationalist communities to fall back on our own resourcefulness, ingenuity and determination.
For example, after the pogroms of 1969, and the introduction of internment by the British, we witnessed the largest movement of a civilian population within Europe since the end of World War 2. Thousands of families were forced to flee their homes. I remember many being rehoused by us in half-finished homes in Twinbrook, Andersonstown, Moyard and other places. There were no windows, floors, doors or heating. These houses were literally built around these families. Incidentally the unionist parties campaigned against the building of Poleglass which was intended to ease the housing crisis.
In the midst of riots and street fighting the bus services often collapsed. Out of that shambles emerged the Black Taxi service. Political vetting too was an integral part of the British state’s efforts to marginalise and isolate republicans and anyone else deemed disloyal by them. Community groups suffered cuts in funding, and jobs were lost as a result of this policy, which was supported by the SDLP and the local Catholic Bishop. Despite all of this wonderful projects like Conway Mill survived and are now flourishing.
This is because the people and the community groups of west Belfast refused to acquiesce to any of this. In 1993 their strength and resilience helped break the demonization policy of two governments. On that occasion President Mary Robinson visited Belfast. She was invited by community leaders in west Belfast to attend “A Celebration of Culture and Creativity”. I was on the list of attendees. The late Inez McCormack and Eileen Howell, and others still active today, played a central role in this initiative.
The British were outraged. West Belfast was the so-called ‘terrorist community’. They refused to allow the visit. Then when the President insisted that she was going to come she was refused diplomatic security protection.
The response of the Irish establishment wasn’t much better. Labour leader Dick Spring made several efforts to persuade Mary Robinson to pull out of the visit. When that failed Irish government officials tried to ensure that I wasn’t invited and when that didn’t work, that I would not meet the President, and most definitely we would not shake hands.
In the face of this official hostility by two governments the west Belfast community remained rock solid. To her credit so did President Robinson. But the visit unleashed a torrent of abuse against her. The Sunday Independent, which at that time was consistently attacking John Hume for just talking to me, called on her to resign.
Later the antagonism of officialdom toward west Belfast again reared its ugly head when I organised a meeting between the Board of the Bunscoil from the Shaws Road Gaeltacht and British Secretary of State Mo Mowlam. For years the west Belfast community had financially supported a Naiscoil and Bunscoil with no state backing and against the opposition of an antagonistic Department of Education.
Mo told me before the meeting that her intention was to give the Shaws Road Bunscoil funding for the first time. She said she had not told her officials. When the meeting ended, and we left her office having been told funding was to be granted, one of the Department officials whispered to one of the Bunscoil delegation; “We’ll get you in the long grass”. I brought the delegation and the culprit straight back into Mo Mowlam again and we faced him down in front of his boss.
In September 1997 when Sinn Féin finally entered into talks we were inundated with messages of support from local community groups which faxed, posted or hand delivered messages of solidarity. I know that the Sinn Féin negotiating team was encouraged and sustained by that support. More importantly I am convinced that without the courage and steadfastness of community leaders and activists during the decades of discrimination and violence the search for peace would have been much more difficult.
The community and voluntary sector of west Belfast sector is owed a great debt of gratitude. Without their resilience and commitment to equality, respect and inclusivity there would be no Good Friday Agreement.