Belfast Agreement: ‘It’s like John F Kennedy being shot, everybody remembers it’

‘The parties basically don’t like each other, and they’re putting that above us as people’

Ruby McNaught, Marie Newton, Goretti McLaughlin, Sharon Austin and Peggy Ward in the Ráth Mór centre in Creggan, Derry. Photograph: Freya McClements

Ruby McNaught, Marie Newton, Goretti McLaughlin, Sharon Austin and Peggy Ward in the Ráth Mór centre in Creggan, Derry. Photograph: Freya McClements

 

Ruby McNaught can recall exactly where she was when the Belfast Agreement was signed. “It’s like John F Kennedy being shot, everybody remembers it.”

She was standing in front of the television in her sister’s house, and her overwhelming feeling was one of relief. “It meant that maybe life would go back to normal. So that you could rear your children without having to worry about them when they went out.”

Today McNaught is a member of Creggan Enterprises’ Unheard Voices project – a cross-community group which works with women from working class communities to foster peace-building and reconciliation.

While McNaught remains positive about the agreement – “the most important thing was that people overcame their difficulties with each other and decided to give peace a go” – she is frustrated by the stalemate at Stormont and Northern Ireland being without a devolved government for more than a year.

“We’re back to orange and green politics, and I don’t like that. We lost the middle ground. What I think is wrong now – the parties basically don’t like each other, and they’re putting that above us as people. They remind me of teenagers having a row, and we need to stand up as people and say ‘look we’ve had enough of this’.”

Couldn’t run a race

Sharon Austin agrees. “Ruby and me were talking earlier. We were saying ‘send us up to Stormont’.They need a crowd of women up there. We would run it better. Those politicians couldn’t run a race.”

Austin’s 18-year-old brother Winston Cross was abducted and shot by the IRA in 1974.

“I think the majority of women in Derry cried with delight and relief the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed,” she says. “They were thinking there’ll be no guns, no bullets, no murders, but sure look at how things are today. There are drugs, and there are punishment shootings. We need help for the young ones, but we don’t have it because we’ve no government.”

For Austin the way to end the deadlock would be to stop paying MLAs their salaries. “It’s like that because they’re getting off with it. If you were on the dole and you didn’t look for work, your money would be taken off you, so I don’t see this as any different. They shouldn’t be getting paid.”

Her friend Marie Newton agrees. Her husband John Toland was shot and killed by loyalists in 1976.

“The Good Friday agreement meant a lot at the time, but I think it’s failed. We thought it was going to mean a whole new world, but it’s all gone downhill, and it makes me sad when you think of what John Hume and others did.”

Hopeful

Goretti McLaughlin, a member of the 50-plus club in the Ráth Mór centre in Creggan, says she remains hopeful for the future.

“I’ll never forget the feeling when that agreement was made, everybody just relaxed and took a deep breath. Go back to the values, and the things that were said, and the things that were meant to happen and didn’t happen, on both sides and for both sides, and maybe that will strike a chord.

“It worked 20 years ago, and it wasn’t easy then, so it’ll be a lot easier to make it work now. That’s the hope for my future, and for my grandchildren’s future.”