Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Greysteel 20 years on: Greatest memorial to victims is unbreakable peace

A candle left at the memorial in Greysteel in Co Derry on the 20th Anniversary of the shooting. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
A candle left at the memorial in Greysteel in Co Derry on the 20th Anniversary of the shooting. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The words on the Greysteel memorial read “May their sacrifice be our path to peace” and that is what happened after the upsurge in violence which started with the Shankill bombing and culminated in the Greysteel massacre.

We owe our peace to those who died and did not seek revenge. This was the moment when society looked into the abyss and pulled back.

October 1993 was a wicked month – terrorist attacks claimed 27 lives, 28 if you include Victor Montgomery who died months later of injuries sustained at Greysteel. That was the highest total of any month since October 1976, the toll swollen by the slaughter of nine people on the Shankill, including a bomber, and a flurry of smaller scale atrocities.

At the time the peace process seemed to be in tatters. Many commentators predicted that the delicate web of contacts must come to an end. John Major, the Prime Minister, told the House of Commons that it would turn his stomach to talk to republicans in the wake of the atrocities.

Yet, years later, in his autobiography, Mr Major's considered opinion was that: "The process was on a knife edge. I think it would have broken down had not the Shankill and Greysteel tragedies intervened." When I asked Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State, about Mr Major's comments, he replied: "It very probably did turn."

The slaughter focused minds and narrowed options. The IRA was escalating its campaign to strengthen its position in eventual negotiations with the two governments. Contacts were still being conducted at third hand through back channels and intermediaries like John Hume, the SDLP leader. The loyalists were also increasing their attacks to exercise a veto and show that there could be no peace without their buy-in.

At the end of September, unionists were alarmed by a leaked Hume/Adams document calling for the British government to become persuaders for Irish unity. After it was published in the Irish Times, James Molyneaux, the UUP leader, warned his party conference that that this meant settling NI's position outside the UK.

More troops were called in as the slaughter mounted. That was the political context to the escalating violence.

In the background, though, the contacts continued and the IRA began to slowly lower its demands as it saw the backlash which the continued attacks, whether loyalist or republican, were likely to provoke. It became clear that involvement in the cycle of violence was undermining republican support.

Rather than picking a side, more and more people were seeking an end to violence.

Where a descent into chaos was widely feared, we got instead the Downing Street Declaration. In it Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach, and John Major emphasised that Northern Ireland's problems could only be settled by consensus. They proposed a process which involved cross-border and British-Irish relations as well as agreement within Northern Ireland.

Within a year we had the IRA and loyalist cessations, which weren't perfect but led to the peace settlement we now enjoy.

Peace or not, though, the suffering of the injured and bereaved continues. It should neither be forgotten nor used for point-scoring recrimination, as the people of the Shankill, Greysteel and the other places where killers struck have shown.

The unsought and undeserved suffering of these victims helped draw the poison from a divided society. Bloodshed and the horror it produced pushed us towards peace but at a dreadful cost which we cannot, as a society, afford to repeat.

That is the lesson that needs to be borne in mind during the Haass talks.

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