Moments that made the year: When the worst of times became a time for conciliation

Peace in Ireland

In Northern Ireland, what started looking like a bad year wound up as one of the best of years. It began with death and destruction; it closed with most of the parties at the talks table, and most of the guns silent.

It hardly needs saying that the obstacles and problems ahead are daunting.

The peace process is fraught with dangers and pressure-points which could, and almost certainly will, cause great disruption.

It is a fair bet that significant acts of violence lie ahead. Yet there is also a sense that the idea of a peace process is taking deeper and deeper root. The original concept of inclusivity - the theory that those who had used violence for so many years might be brought into a new system rather than perpetually frozen out - was highly controversial.

Its early exponents, such as John Hume, were reviled, their moves to bring in the violent prodigals easily caricatured as appeasement of terrorism. But as the year ends, the inclusive philosophy of the peace process seems on the way to becoming the political norm.

At the beginning of the year the key question was whether another 25- year cycle of violence was in the making. The IRA had just bombed the Army's Northern Ireland headquarters: one soldier was killed and others had near-miraculous escapes. Spring brought IRA disruption of English motorway traffic and postponement of the Grand National, while in Belfast there were sporadic loyalist killings. Political talks, which were going on in Belfast without Sinn Fein, seemed to be going nowhere.

But then the election changed everything. Where John Major had played it long, mindful always of Ulster Unionist suspicion and disapproval of the whole project, Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went for momentum. Early setbacks made it all look hopeless: the IRA shot two police officers and handling of the annual Drumcree marching controversy soured relations between nationalists and the Government.

Things were so bad, coming up to the main 12 July Orange marches, that 400 extra troops were drafted. But then the Orange Order called off some contentious marches, transforming the atmosphere at a stroke.

Even so, the IRA truce of 20 July came generally as a surprise. The Government, undeflected by continuing violence and communal friction, had systematically addressed republican preconditions for a cessation by, for example, dropping Mr Major's demand for prior decommissioning of IRA weapons. The republicans were impressed by the Government's willingness to engage with their concerns; they were impressed too by Labour's huge majority and that in Dublin a new government was headed by Fianna Fail, well-disposed towards the peace process.

Unlike the IRA truce of 1994, the second cessation was not greeted with euphoria. The second time round everyone had learnt hard lessons, and knew there were no guarantees it would hold in all circumstances. None the less, it unlocked the door for political progress, paving the way for a series of historic moments.

Labour judged that its majority gave it leeway to exert strong pressure on Unionists to get into talks with Sinn Fein. It may also have judged that the general Protestant population was more ready for dialogue than the often negative and hostile attitude of some Unionist politicians suggested.

Autumn brought momentous events. The Rev Ian Paisley opted out of the talks process, but David Trimble, after soul-searching, led his larger Ulster Unionist Party into a process which included Sinn Fein. Tony Blair shook the hand of Gerry Adams, first in Belfast and then, with tremendous symbolic significance, inside 10 Downing Street.

Viewed up close on a day-to-day basis, it has often been tedious. The talks continue but the pace is glacially slow, and earlier this month the parties failed to agree even an agenda for the new year. Unionists sit in the same room as Sinn Fein but will not talk to them.

From one perspective this can seem dispiriting and ominous. So too can the fissures which opened within so many important components: some members of the IRA and Sinn Fein resigned, fearing a sell-out; the Orange Order seems split between moderates and militants; the Ulster Unionist party has critics outside its ranks and within them.

And there is still violence. The IRA killed three people before its ceasefire but loyalist violence claimed 11 lives throughout the year. The major republican and loyalist groups are inside the process but others, smaller but potentially deadly, are on the outside and intent on wrecking it.

Next year will bring many testing moments. Will the truces hold? Can the outsiders disrupt the process? Can Sinn Fein and the IRA accept an outcome which delivers something less than the republican goal of Irish unity? There are many other contentious issues, including prison releases and policing reform.

It is also the case that relations between the nationalist and Unionist communities can be described as unfriendly and even hostile. Recurring marching controversies and political disagreements have left much bitterness in many minds.

Viewed against this background, the events of the year seem even more startling. The year began with war; it has not ended with peace, for that can only be declared with any confidence after the emergence of political agreement and the successful operation of new arrangements.

That will take years and there are no guarantees the process will stay on the rails. Yet the year closes with an immeasurably better situation than it opened; with hopes that political breakthroughs can be made and with hope that historians may some day conclude that 1997 was the year when Northern Ireland finally turned the corner.

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