There was a lot of talk about the Good Friday Agreement a few weeks ago. Maybe too much talk. For me the more important day was May 22nd 1998. This was the day that the people of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would vote on the agreement. A Referendum on whether we agreed or disagreed with our politicians.
Leading up to the vote, some of the anti-agreement parties had been trying to convince the people that this was a sell-out to terrorism and to vote no. Some of the strongest arguments came from evangelical Christians who supposedly followed a Bible that teaches them “to make every effort to live at peace with all men” (Heb. 12:14) and to “love their enemies and do good to those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27, 28).
Things were touch and go as to how the Referendum might go when something significant happened. Two young men Conal McDevitt and David Kerr worked for the two major political leaders John Hume and David Trimble. They came up with a cunning imaginative and ambitious idea, a last minute grab for the media headlines.
What if U2 and Northern Irish band Ash did a concert for peace in Belfast. It was quickly brought together and one of the most iconic photographs of that peace process is Bono holding up the hands of Hume and Trimble, much like Bob Marley did with Jamaican politicians Michael Manley and opponent Edward Seaga in 1978.
I remember sitting at home watching the news and and suddenly the tears were tripping me. On my TV screen being beamed across the world was Bono, Hume and Trimble. It this tangible hope.
On May 22nd 94% in the Republic of Ireland and 71% in Northern Ireland voted for that Agreement. In her balanced and informative book Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, Susan McKay describes the two men holding Bono’s hands: “They looked awkward, but it was a winning gesture which had revived a floundering campaign.”
I think back on that night today. It is hard to not conclude that the 29% who voted against it then is still the 29% holding us back now. Yet, how we have moved forward. Northern Ireland in most places is different than it was 25 years ago today. We need to build on that peace. It needs to be more than political it needs to become societal.
We also need to invest in education and jobs in the difficult working class areas that will feel left behind in what other might call a peace dividend. We need to build on the prosperity of the entire country.
So let us stay committed to that decision we made. No one said that it would be easy. Many had to give up their hopes of justice as well as the heartache of murdered loved ones. Political positions had to be compromised. Some lost their political careers. Peace on an island at conflict for centuries didn’t come cheap or easy.
I commit to that mark I made.