Putting peace on the right track: the Peace Train and civil society in Northern Ireland

Civil society groups operated as active advocates for peace, helping to alter the Troubles climate

A Peace Train group at Connolly station, Dublin, including Paddy Devlin, Jim Tunney, John Carson, Seán Kenny and Susan McHugh. Photograph: Chris Hudson

In the context of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement this month, it is not surprising that the focus of commemorative activities has, once again, concentrated on the elite level of inter-governmental and inter-party negotiation.

This emphasis on the ‘high politics’, what Paul Dixon refers to as the ‘choreography’ of the peace process, is understandable, given that it was paramilitary groups, parties and governments which drove both the conflict itself and the post-ceasefire efforts to consolidate peace. However, these elite actors were not exclusively responsible for the dynamics of conflict and peace. Indeed, there is another very significant dimension to this story which has largely been overlooked in the historical narrative of the process: namely, the role played by civil society groups which sought to mobilise for peace and reconciliation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Groups such as the Peace Train organisation, which ran seven trains between Dublin and Belfast from 1989-1995, received support from a broad range of civil society: trade unions, churches, business communities, the media and arts organisations, as well as political figures from several parties across both jurisdictions in Ireland, as well as in Britain.

A Peace Train placard

A new research project, funded by the Irish Government’s Reconciliation Fund, seeks to redress the balance in the historiography and popular perception of this critical period, arguing that, while it is hard to quantify the impact of the pressure from below for peace in Northern Ireland, civil society groups did operate as active advocates for peace, helping to shift the social and political climate surrounding the conflict. The Peace Train was also a genuinely transnational and cross-communal venture, operating not just in Dublin and Belfast, but also ‘East-West’ in England (a one-off special train ran from Holyhead to London in June 1991).

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The Peace Train group had been set up under the auspices of New Consensus, an organisation established in 1989 to repudiate all paramilitary violence. It ruled out taking an agreed position on the ‘constitutional question’, but it did adopt a broader agenda than simply demanding peace. For example, New Consensus argued for a power-sharing devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, a Bill of Rights, and integrated education.

New Consensus claimed supporters from political parties, north and south, but although it had an overlapping membership with the Peace Train group, it was felt the latter single-issue campaign (based around the slogan “Keep the Lines Open!”) could attract a broader swathe of public opinion, perhaps especially in the Republic.

The Peace Train group formed committees in Dublin and Belfast, then one in London after the Provisional IRA killed trainee soldier William Davies at Lichfield station in June 1990, and a commuter, David Corner, at Victoria station in February 1991, when a bomb exploded at rush hour.

Well-known personalities became leading figures in the group, including broadcaster Sam McAughtry and independent socialist (and former SDLP minister) Paddy Devlin in Belfast. In Dublin, trade unionists such as Chris Hudson, peace activists (Anne Holliday, Michael Nugent) and politicians became patrons including Proinsias de Rossa of the Workers’ Party/Democratic Left, Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael, Trevor Sargent of the Greens, as well as Mary Robinson, recently-elected President of Ireland.

In the political context of the late 1980s, with unionist withdrawal from political dialogue after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, it was enormously difficult to construct genuinely cross-communal initiatives for peace. The Peace Train proved capable, almost uniquely, of bringing members of the Ulster Unionist Party such as Chris and Michael McGimpsey behind the campaign, alongside members of pro-Irish unity parties such as the SDLP. The Workers’ Party was notably active, happily highlighting Provisional IRA misdeeds at the same time as conceiving of a broad-based movement in line with its past ‘Gramscian’ approach.

A 1990 Peace Train poster - courtesy of LHL Divided Society site

The Alliance Party was also strongly supportive of the initiative, and Eileen Bell – later Alliance MLA and second speaker of the resuscitated Stormont Assembly – worked as its administrator in Belfast. Councils north and south passed motions of support, at a time when it has been suggested that the Belfast-Dublin train line was close to being shut down permanently. There was a simple but insistent message that it was illogical for the Provisional movement, which was ostensibly using or justifying violence in the name of Irish unity, to also use bombs and threats to target the main line of communication between north and south.

Paul Burgess, a supporter of the Peace Train and ‘small u’ unionist, originally from Belfast then later long-time resident in Cork, noted that disruption to the train line impeded cross-border contact. What the Provisional IRA really wanted to do was ‘mess with normality’. In response to republican critics who charged the Peace Train group with being one-sided, Harry Barnes (Labour MP for North East Derbyshire and secretary of the group in London) argued that the Provisionals were ‘naturally the main target’ of the campaign, as it was the only organisation that was seeking to disrupt the line.

The Peace Train also made a cultural impact, featuring in Robert McLiam Wilson’s novel Eureka Street (1996), which cast a jaundiced eye on trains packed full of ‘South Belfast’s concerned classes’. The largely working-class and trade unionist character of the Peace Trains offsets this portrait, but if McLiam Wilson ridiculed the endeavour, other Irish artists were more supportive. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley signed their support. Folk singer Pete St John accompanied Sam McAughtry on one Peace Train from Dublin to Belfast, while Paul Durcan’s poem The Dublin Belfast Railway Line (from his 1990 collection Daddy, Daddy) excoriated the Provisionals for their attacks on the line:

I want the heroic democrats of the IRA

To enjoy the benefits of train travel:

The tenacity of luggage racks:

The cups of coffee at 60 miles an hour.

The Peace Train enabled a dialogue to occur between civil society groups in Dublin and Belfast, as well as London. As such, it prefigured the three strands of the 1998 peace agreement, which entailed addressing relationships between Irish nationalists and British unionists in Northern Ireland, alongside ‘North-South’ and ‘East-West’ relations.

This embryonic transnational dialogue and co-operation had its parallels at the elite level in organisations like the British-Irish inter-parliamentary body, but even this effort did not cross the communal chasm of the time, as unionists boycotted it for many years. However, working in quite different political contexts, it is not surprising that the Peace Train committees occasionally had different priorities. There were strenuous efforts to co-ordinate major decisions, but the diverse committees – sometimes manifesting in personal differences – did focus their activities towards different audiences.

In Dublin and the Republic, there was an aspiration to develop significant public support for the peace movement and mobilise popular opinion to repudiate paramilitarism. In the words of participant Prof Linda Connolly, then a young student, the Peace Train was also important as a ‘huge learning experience’ for people in the South, many of whom had little social interaction with the North or dialogue with northerners during the conflict era.

In the aftermath of the horrific IRA bombing of Warrington in March 1993, in which two boys, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, were killed, a spontaneous popular movement was mobilised. Peace 93 drew large rallies across the Republic, with 20,000 people turning out in Dublin alone. Danny Morrison, who had already denounced the ‘stunt’ Peace Trains, wrote to the Irish Times (April 12th, 1993) from his cell in H-Block 3, vituperatively condemning the ‘smugness, aloofness and hypocrisy’ of all the peace rallies.

In London, where public interest in Irish affairs was the preserve of a small minority, the Peace Train committee concentrated its efforts on influencing Westminster political debates, seeking to influence those who occupied strategic roles in policy-making towards Northern Ireland. Many of those engaged with the Peace Train in London countered a simple ‘Troops Out’ mentality and were instrumental in convincing the Labour Party to adjust its Northern Ireland policy, abandoning the strained formulation of ‘unity by consent’ in 1994 in favour of a more even-handed position.

Groups such as the Peace Train lobby bridged social and cultural movements with political campaigns, mobilising citizens from the trade unions, Catholic and Protestant churches, business groups, the educational sector, and the arts in different jurisdictions, helping create the conditions for a successful peace by the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. In the context of difficult British-Irish official relationships since 2016, we should all reconsider the significance of civil society across these islands.

A Witness Seminar on the Peace Train was held on March 30th in the Belfast Unemployed Resources Centre. A general conference on civil society and the peace process follows on April 26th in the Theatre Upstairs at Belfast’s MAC Theatre. Dr Connal Parr is Assistant Professor in History at Northumbria University, and Dr Stephen Hopkins is Lecturer at the School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester.