The difficult birth of a new Northern Ireland in 1998

Declassified files cover a time of exhilarating highs and the ever-present threat of violence

The defining year of the peace process, 1998, was a time of exhilarating highs and agonising lows. It was the year of the Belfast Agreement, of John Hume and David Trimble clasping hands on stage as U2 sang “Give Peace a Chance”, of Yes votes on both sides of the Border, and the recognition provided by a Nobel Peace Prize.

However, the peace talks took place against a backdrop of murders perpetrated by loyalist and republican factions, and the agreement was followed by the Omagh bombing, an atrocity that resulted in the largest loss of life in any single incident within Northern Ireland.

The latest official records shed light on the atmosphere behind the scenes at Stormont’s Castle Buildings, as negotiators like Jeffrey Donaldson and Séamus Mallon put themselves in the other’s nationalist or unionist shoes to explore the strengths and weaknesses of a potential deal from both communities’ perspectives. However, beyond the talks venue, gunmen and bombers seemed to be trying to make the delegates’ task as hard as possible.

In March the Loyalist Volunteer Force murdered Protestant and Catholic friends Philip Allen and Damien Traynor, as they drank together in a bar in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh. David Trimble and Mallon walked together through the village, calling in on the victims’ family homes to offer their condolences in what amounted to a very public demonstration that they would not let the killings derail their efforts.

That Easter the weather in Belfast felt more like Christmas, with swirls of snow and hail circling the talks venue. With an hour to go until the deadline, word reached us in the press pack that Ian Paisley had led an incursion into the Stormont estate. I remember following the DUP leader as he marched with his entourage through the darkness from Carson’s statue towards the village of portable huts we were broadcasting from outside Castle Buildings.

Paisley gave an impromptu news conference condemning the deal, while in the background loyalist talks delegates heckled him as “the Grand Old Duke of York” and a “dinosaur”.

Leaving it late

Eighteen hours after George Mitchell’s deadline, the deal was finally unveiled. Donaldson and Arlene Foster, horrified by the prospect of paramilitary prisoner releases, had walked out. But bolstered by promises from Tony Blair, Trimble stuck by the agreement. An exhausted Mitchell brought the negotiators together for the final ceremony, quipping that he had been “dying to leave, but hated to go” – the talks venue had been his second home for two long years of often rancorous negotiations.

Given the overwhelming nationalist and centre-ground support for the deal, majority backing was never in doubt. However, as the newly released files confirm, the real point at issue in the referendum campaign was whether most unionists could be persuaded to vote Yes.

Hackles were raised by the rapturous reception the IRA’s “Balcombe Street gang” received when they appeared at Sinn Féin’s ardfheis in Dublin. A similar scene as the loyalist prisoner Michael Stone – on temporary release – turned up at a pro-agreement rally in Belfast’s Ulster Hall only compounded that sense of anxiety.

Blair tried to calm nerves with his handwritten pledge that paramilitary prisoners would be kept behind bars unless violence was “given up for good”.

Then Hume and Trimble appeared on stage together with U2 and Ash at a pro-agreement concert for sixth formers at Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Chatting backstage afterwards, Bono told me he hoped the gig and the upbeat images it provided would make a difference, adding “we had to do whatever we could”.

The referendum contest led to another vote, with the northern parties vying for election to a shadow assembly. The SDLP emerged with the most votes, while the UUP got the most seats. But the promised powersharing executive and accompanying North-South bodies could not be formed as a stand-off developed over IRA and loyalist disarmament.

For a fourth year in a row, the Drumcree parade in Portadown sparked serious violence, with loyalists throwing blast bombs and fireworks at the RUC, who replied with volleys of plastic bullets. Proximity talks between the Orange Order and residents from the nationalist Garvaghy estate failed to break the deadlock.

I spent days and nights dodging projectiles near the barbed-wire barriers that separated loyalists from the security forces. At times the scene beside the picturesque Drumcree church seemed reminiscent of a medieval battlefield.

Then came the sickening news that a loyalist arson attack in Ballymoney had claimed the lives of Richard, Mark and Jason Quinn, three brothers aged 11, 10 and nine. The Presbyterian minister, William Bingham, declared that "no road was worth a life" and, as mourners shouldered the boys' three small white coffins, back at Drumcree the protest melted away.

Omagh bomb

In August the latest in a series of car bombs exploded, this time in the busy shopping town of Omagh. When I got to Tyrone County Hospital, dazed people were milling around looking for their loved ones. Helicopters were picking up casualties and shuttling them every few minutes to Belfast.

The Real IRA bomb killed 29 people, including nine children. One of the victims, Avril Monaghan, was expecting twins – she died together with her 18-month-old daughter.

Gerry Adams condemned the atrocity “without equivocation”. Previously Adams had refused to engage in what he termed the “politics of condemnation”. Dublin and London rushed through anti-terror laws, pledging to crack down on those responsible.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton both visited the scene of the bombing. In the wake of the attack, the Real IRA and the INLA announced ceasefires. However, 23 years on the families of the Omagh victims do not believe they have got either the truth or the justice they deserve.

In October 1998 the progress made in Northern Ireland received international recognition with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Trimble and Hume. In December I flew to Norway to watch the two politicians accept their prize in the splendidly ornate surroundings of the Oslo Rathaus.

Hume regaled his audience with the inspiration he had taken from the European Union’s peace-building example in trying to build bridges between the communities on his home patch. Trimble warned against taking the achievements of 1998 for granted, stressing the need for the decommissioning of weapons to begin in earnest.

Understandably, the mood was celebratory. However, making your way around the icy streets of Oslo was fraught with danger – one false move and you could, like an unlucky colleague, easily end up in hospital. It seemed an apt metaphor for a year that witnessed historic and unprecedented breakthroughs, but throughout which the peace process remained fragile and highly vulnerable.

Mark Devenport was BBC’s Ireland Correspondent in 1998