It was the helicopters, that potent background hum of troubles Belfast, that signalled what progress was being made or not made. Our home sat just below the Gilnahirk ridge with a view of Parliament Buildings at Stormont. Several times on 10 April 1998, two helicopters came in to land. The television screen confirmed that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was not yet ready for his ride home.
I was not in the room that day, but with thousands of others, my heart was. It certainly was not with those who had gathered at the gate the night before to try to disrupt whatever sellout was being brewed, the last ditch defenders of the narrow ground of Protestant Ulster.
Many in the room were more than just a talking head in the news. Since the breakdown of the IRA ceasefires in February 1996, along with other colleagues in ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland), I had been involved in a number of contacts aimed at building relationships and resetting the conditions that would lead to this day.
There were dozens of such initiatives across civic society and from church groups. All had their own contribution to make to create the context in which the peace could be built. Following the initial ceasefires, based at the Belfast YMCA, ECONI had begun a public series… the Christian Citizenship Forum… aimed at exploring our responsibilities in the new era that presented itself. With this came our public statements in response to the landmark moments of the peace process.
Looking back, it was the extensive private dialogues involving a small group from ECONI that became the most rewarding activity of this period. We met with loyalists and republicans, unionists and nationalists, inviting them to speak at the forum, while engaging behind the scene to build trust and understanding. Keeping in touch with the NIO and the Irish government, we took part in the Forum for Peace in Dublin.
When the IRA ceasefire broke in early 1996, we increased our contact with republicans. No one ever said making peace would be easy. I became part of a small group convened by Father Gerry Reynolds that met regularly in Clonard monastery with some of the republican leadership, and alongside this, we intensified our contacts with loyalists over monthly lunches in the home of David McMillan.
It was during a rather heated personal conversation with Tom Hartley, when the prospect of talks after a resumed ceasefire was looming, that he challenged me on the nature of the relationships we were building. His point was that politics is not just what happens in the room; it is often dependent on the relationships we bring into the room. Relationships built through common interests and shared space, which had not been possible during the violence. Republicans were at the table, but not in the tearooms where these relationships could be made.
What did he expect after the violence of the IRA campaign? Cosy chats over tea and scones between negotiating sessions? However, something resonated. Peacemakers, the children of God, surely have something distinctive to offer in the painful process of talking through the hurt and pain that governments cannot provide. At the heart of our faith is God’s invitation to God’s table, not because we merit the invite, but because God is a God of grace, mercy and love. Hospitality, without agenda, became the watchword.
Along with David Hewitt, David McMillan, Norman Hamilton and with the superb logistics of Stanley McDowell, ‘Creating Tea Rooms’ came into being. We secured the generous financial support of Atlantic Philanthropies and a few local business leaders. More importantly, we engaged the participation of a contact group of senior Evangelical leaders in Great Britain.
Convened by Sir Fred Catherwood, it included Rev Joel Edwards and Martyn Eden (from Evangelical Alliance), Rev David Coffey (from the Baptist Union), Viscount Crispin Brentford (a member of General Synod), Rt Rev Roy Williamson (Bishop of Southwark), Dr Neil Summerton (Brethren leader and senior Whitehall civil servant), Eamon Donnelly (a Dublin businessman) and Lord Len Murray (former General Secretary of the TUC and a Methodist layman). They agreed to make themselves available to be briefed in person by key participants in the all-party talks.
While that was the formal cover, the purpose, understood by all, was to provide a context in which local politicians could relax, have good food and hospitality and talk not simply on the business of the week, but reflect on the challenges for their constituencies and the pressures they faced in being part of the thing we called the peace process. The first two weekends, in the spring of 1997, one in a hotel outside Dublin and one in a hotel outside Ballymena, brought together participants on traditional lines. We then moved to a hotel near Heathrow for two more weekends in the autumn, when the renewed IRA ceasefire allowed for more creative mixing. On both these occasions, recognising the strain the process put on home life, we invited spouses/partners to attend if they wished.
When it came to 10 April 1998, many of those in the room were no longer media figures, but men and women who my colleagues and I had got to know and understand, and to respect the responsibility they carried. My prayers were personal for them as decisions needed to be made. Not all were able to remain in the room, for their own legitimate reasons, and now today face another decisive moment in their political life.
The deal struck on that day was a moment where people reached out and were able to touch and see a better future. It could not be made the day before and, the day after, it began to come under great strain.
I stubbornly refuse to call the Belfast Agreement after the day in the Christian calendar on which it was made. For while it speaks of aspirations of a reconciled and shared future, all of which I long to see realised, it is and always has been a political deal, flawed as all such deals are, and not accruing any divine sanction because of the day on which it was made. It aimed at scoping out the narrow ground in which the toxicity of our past, the violence, hatred and hurt, could meet the vision and hope of a better future together.
The tragedy is that this narrow ground still remains waiting to be gained. We are, in the words of Yeats, still a people of ‘great hatred, little room’. In a place where churchgoing remains higher than in most parts of these islands, we still await the dawn from on high where grace, love and mercy bear the fruit of a peaceable kingdom. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Canon David W Porter
David was a co-founder and Director of ECONI. He left Belfast in 2008 to lead the international reconciliation ministry at Coventry Cathedral, before being appointed by Archbishop Justin Welby in 2013 as his Director for Reconciliation. He became Chief of Staff at Lambeth Palace in 2016, retiring from that role in November 2022.
This is the first of three …PS…Blogs that David is writing to contribute to our marking of 25 years since the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10th April 1998. Today we mark that date.
We will publish a series of other …PS…blogs later this month to hear the views of younger people who have lived to benefit from the vision and hope for a better future that the Agreement offers.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.