GFA stood on the shoulders of those giants who defied terror and who ultimately were vindicated in pursuing peace

The following is an abridged version of a speech I made in Belfast last night to the Peace Train Organisation…

If you’d told the teenage leftist, entirely English too, that I would spend years working against terror with bedfellows in many parties on both sides of the Irish Sea, I’d have been surprised.

When I joined Labour in 1976, I initially swallowed the position that the root cause of the Troubles was partition, and that Irish unification was the solution. I overcame this, thanks largely to the ILP, Independent Labour Publications, which presented alternative views and robustly challenged oversimplified mantras.

Engagement began in earnest from 1987 when I started work at the Commons for Labour MP Harry Barnes and we fell increasingly into Northern Ireland issues, later described by Mo Mowlam as “hauntingly compulsive”.

The main initiatives were New Consensus/New Dialogue, Families Against Intimidation and Terror, and the Peace Train. There was a flurry of activity by these separate groups.

We took on the Bloody Sunday issue by urging the British Government to recognise that those killed were not as portrayed in the whitewash report by Lord Widgery. We also urged an historical inquiry.

In 1992, a score of us organised a presence for peace near hundreds of Troops Outers in Islington. Our placards read – No more Bloody Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, etc. A republican flute band regaled us with a drumbeat and chants of I-I-IRA. We stole their thunder.

The Peace Train Organisation had been exposing the bombs and disruptions on the line between Belfast and Dublin, an odd move for an Irish unity movement. The trains attracted hundreds of people on 7 occasions. We set up a London based organisation with people from various parties and none. A highlight was the Belfast-Dublin-London Peace Train in June 1991.

The PTO produced a poster listing organisations that supported it on one half. The main parties, trade unions (another often unsung hero), civic groups – everyone was there. Only paramilitaries were on the other half. Our patron was Irish President, Mary Robinson.

The train arrived one morning at Euston Station for a rally outside. Troops Outers picketed it, hilariously shooting themselves in the foot, and boosting our publicity. We then took buses provided by another union, the Transport Workers, to the Commons where Harry had secured a debate with minister Brian Mawhinney responding positively.

Sometimes we were amateurish. The posters showed the wrong dates and were scrapped. When we visited the Irish President, none of us, all media savvy, had a camera. A young woman soldier obliged.

The work also created an informed network of people. New Dialogue produced a monthly digest on Northern Ireland/Ireland that attracted a wide audience when the Internet was in its infancy.

Some of us in the Labour Party challenged its anti-partitionist sentiment which seemed initially solid but was mostly due to romanticism and inertia. It needed a nudge. That parts of the Irish left were less nationalistic than some on the British left counted considerably.

Labour’s position of unity by consent was ambiguous – some stressed unity, others emphasised consent. But it made Labour a difficult partner for unionists. The notion that a Labour Government would be a persuader for unity or joint sovereignty was a recipe for conflict.

Some of us engaged with unionists, not easy at first. The McGimpsey brothers, Chris and Michael, were important influencers. Michael addressed the big Tribune rally at the Labour conference in 1998 alongside Gerry Adams. Michael deployed a topical joke: what’s the difference between Gerry Adams and Geri Halliwell. Answer, Geri really has left the Spice Girls.

There was a sharp intake of breath and then laughter. Adams was flustered by the mockery.

This varied work impacted on opinion-formers with positive editorials in the New Statesman and the Mirror, which dropped its old troops out stance.

Seismic changes followed Blair’s election as Labour Leader in 1994. Blair, whose Irish mother and holidays in the South gave him a vital hinterland, quickly replaced the keeper of the anti-partitionist faith and veteran Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Kevin McNamara with Mo Mowlam. Her first public speech was to the cross-party New Dialogue peace group. Northern Ireland political minister, Michael Ancram, also addressed the group.

The defeat of old-time anti-partition sentiment in Labour proved essential in bolstering bipartisan support for Sir John Major and then the Belfast Agreement, most elements of which were advocated by the peace groups.

There were laughable rearguard actions. Asking British MPs to wear the Shamrock for Commons Questions on Northern Ireland on St Patrick’s Day was denounced as a unionist plot by someone Frank Millar of the Irish Times dubbed a quick-witted but nationalist-minded Labour aide. Conservative MP Peter Bottomley and Harry penned a letter to the Irish Times asking if poppies in Dublin would be a republican plot.

It wasn’t easy to defy warmongers. It was a strength that it was bipartisan. That caused no problems as there was much continuity between the Major and Blair governments. Another strength is that it was hyphenated – Irish/British/Northern Irish plus first and second generations.

This unity of Irish and British people from all walks of life made it crystal clear that the IRA had no mandate from the Irish people, and the same applied to so-called loyalists. Politicians who concluded the deal stood on the shoulders of giants who defied terror and were vindicated.

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