Peace Process

Photograph: Plaque commemorating Mo Mowlam, Newcastle (Flickr)

Irish diaspora activists in Britain largely welcomed the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s. When the IRA called a ceasefire in August 1994, the Connolly Association congratulated Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. The Connolly Association heralded a constitutional pathway to Irish unification. Echoing Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, they urged Prime Minister John Major to ‘persuade unionists that their future interests lie in reaching an agreement amongst all the people of Ireland’. The Federation of Irish Societies greeted the IRA ceasefire with similar enthusiasm, having long asserted that the republican campaign – especially its bombings in Britain – only exacerbated the prejudice and discrimination which Irish migrants suffered in Britain. When the IRA bombed Warrington in March 1993, killing schoolchildren Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, FIS chairman Liam McNally said: ‘There is no support for this kind of thing among Irish people here and we want Irish men and women to come out now and speak against it’. McNally implored the Irish in Britain to ‘articulate their total opposition to such appalling atrocities allegedly committed in their name. The Irish in Britain should now directly say to the IRA – you don’t speak on our behalf, you don’t act on our behalf, you have no mandate from us’.

The more overtly pro-republican activists in the Irish in British Representation Group were less sanguine about the prospects of Irish unification after the republican ceasefires. When Sinn Féin endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – agreeing that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status could not change without an internal majority vote – the IBRG criticised the republicans who they had long endorsed. Fundamentally, the IBRG regarded the Agreement as an accord to ‘bolster’ British rule in Ireland. The Dublin government’s role in the Agreement required a major amendment to the southern state’s constitution, which no longer made a unilateral irridentist claim to Northern Ireland. The modified constitution, IBRG strategists told the press in 1998, was a ‘betrayal of the Irish nation’. The IBRG eventually became moribund by the mid-2000s. Former activists like Bernadette Hyland, Judy Peddle, and Pat Reynolds channelled their political energies into the trade unions, community organisations, anti-fascism, feminism, and refugee support groups. Some veterans, like Joe and Margaret Mullarkey, longstanding IBRG activists in Bolton, returned to Ireland in their retirement.

Irish diaspora activists in Britain sustained their input throughout the peace process. During the negotiations which yielded the Good Friday Agreement, for example, the FIS held private meetings with Labour government officials. Demanding a permanent Dublin government minister for the diaspora, the FIS argued that the global Irish community had a role to play in effecting reconciliation on the island of Ireland. They urged Labour's Northern Ireland Office minister Paul Murphy to expedite a bill of rights for Britain and Ireland alike, reforms in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the release on parole of politically-motivated prisoners.