We were pilloried for meeting Sinn Fein — but peace was the result

25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, KEN LIVINGSTONE writes about his unique, long-running role in the peace process that saw him vilified, then eventually vindicated — and salutes a future united Ireland

BACK in March this year, I met up in Camden Town with Francie Molloy. Today Molloy is the Sinn Fein MP for Mid Ulster, but when I first met him he was a councillor in Dungannon, Northern Ireland. Since the mid-1980s, Molloy has been a regular visitor to London and it was good to have a catch-up after so long.

During the course of our conversation, Molloy suggested that the initial conversations between Sinn Fein and the left of the Labour Party in the early 1980s could be considered the beginning of the Irish peace process.

Now, I will leave it to historians to judge that one. But I can say that I am proud of the role that I did play, alongside others on the British left, to encourage dialogue and peace between our two islands. Twenty-five years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement it is evident that talking was the right thing to do.

I can remember watching a Nationalist MP being interviewed on TV, in the late 1960s, explaining just how great the degree of discrimination in Northern Ireland was. From housing to employment to voting rights and the brutal daily repression by the almost exclusively Protestant police force.

I could see, even then before any armed struggle had started, that what was being done to Catholics in Northern Ireland was similar to what happened to black people in the Deep South of the US. It was the same pattern of discrimination.

And if the behaviour of the Unionist establishment was deplorable, then the policy of successive British governments not to interfere was equally despicable. MPs of all parties knew what was going on but preferred to ignore the plight of Nationalists rather than offend Unionists. We had the hypocrisy of Labour leaders praising the black civil rights struggle in the US whilst ignoring an identical pattern of discrimination on their doorstep.

Like many others, I began to read the history of Ireland. The more I learned, the more angry and outraged I became as I slowly began to grasp the scale of what Britain had done over the centuries. For me, it was a sort of personal voyage of discovery, which got close to revulsion.

In 1977, I was selected to stand for Parliament in Hampstead. Well, Hampstead starts in Kilburn so suddenly I was amongst the biggest Irish community in London. The majority of the Irish in London at that time just wanted to keep their heads down because there was an awful lot of violence and hatred directed at them.

It would have been impossible to ignore the cause of Ireland at any time, but with the 1980-81 hunger strikes and the IRA exploding bombs on London’s streets, I was not prepared to be silent. Londoners’ lives were at risk, young Londoners were being sent to fight and die in Ireland, and every London taxpayer was contributing towards the continuation of a senseless war.

As the leader of the Greater London Council, I also believed that our military involvement in Ireland led to an erosion of civil rights and public morality here in Britain. No one would have suggested that mayors in the US could not have expressed their views during the Vietnam war.

When I publicly said that we needed to talk with Irish republicans, I was viciously denounced in the Tory press. The Establishment line was that the war wasn’t political — these were just “psychopaths and criminals.”

Indeed, when I first invited Gerry Adams to London, in late 1982, Thatcher banned him from even entering the country. That’s how afraid they were of the two of us talking.

So, I had to fly instead to meet Adams in Belfast the following February. I remember being shocked when I landed. It was like going back to Britain in the 1950s. It was just so poor and drab.

Virtually the first thing Adams told me was that the IRA knew it could never defeat the British army. But equally, the British army could never defeat the IRA. So there had to be a negotiation. It was basically that simple.

Oddly enough, years later, when visiting an army training college in Camberley, the officers there told me that: “We always knew we couldn’t defeat the IRA. Every time we killed one there would be 10 more recruits.” And that was in the mid-1990s, just before Tony Blair did the deal.

When I came back from Belfast, back in 1983, I publicly stated that there was potential to do a deal and end the conflict. But Thatcher just continued, completely obdurate. It is a tragedy that a further thousand people died before the Good Friday Agreement was eventually secured.

Following his election as MP for West Belfast, the exclusion order against Adams was lifted. So, he finally came to Britain at the invitation of the Greater London Council.

I had spent so long trying to get elected to the House of Commons and here was Adams elected but not wanting to take up his seat. As I joked with him at the time, sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Because Jeremy Corbyn had also just been elected as an MP, we held a meeting with the Sinn Fein delegation in the House of Commons. Jeremy and I both recognised that you had to talk, otherwise we’d just be locked in a cycle of bloody violence.

The media went berserk over the visit. Not because they thought that I was going to change my mind, but rather as a warning to other British politicians that they would get similar treatment if they dared to question the government’s position on Ireland.

And the intimidation worked. It was remarkable the number of times that I had not just Labour MPs, but Tories and Liberals too, quietly say to me: “We agree with you on Ireland actually, but we just don’t feel we can say it.”

Even though the delegation only addressed a small number of people and what they said was largely ignored by the press, the visit did open the way for a process of dialogue that continued.

I always worked on the assumption that I was a target for loyalist paramilitaries. One Saturday afternoon, Special Branch officers turned up at my home unannounced and told me that my movements were being monitored by extreme groups and I should change my pattern of travel.

It was years later that the press revealed that a UDA assassin had indeed been following me, intending to shoot me as I walked down into Westminster Tube.

In December 1993, John Major unveiled the Downing Street Declaration which he had negotiated with the Irish government. This helped bring about a ceasefire in August 1994. However, Major’s parliamentary majority stood at single figures, and he was reliant on the votes of the Ulster Unionists. As a result, he excluded Sinn Fein from talks. That was a major problem. Adams needed to be involved in talks if the ceasefire was to hold.

Sinn Fein told me they wanted Labour to give Major a promise not to bring his government down on a confidence motion so that the peace process could move forward.

I pointed out that there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of such an undertaking succeeding but it showed the scale of misunderstanding between conventional politicians used to parliamentary procedures and those used to waging a guerilla war. After 18 months, with no progress, the IRA renewed its armed campaign.

In late 1994, Mo Mowlam took me to lunch to pick my brains after taking up the shadow cabinet brief on Northern Ireland. She had never met Sinn Fein and I offered to be a sounding board between her and Adams. Mowlam was prepared to take great risks for peace and Adams needed to carry all of the IRA with him.

In November 1996, Corbyn and I met with Sinn Fein leaders in the House of Commons. When it was leaked to newspapers that we had met the IRA’s Army Council — which we had not done — I said on the Today programme that I suspected the leak came from MI5 officers once again getting involved in politics.

MI5 issued a denial, which pointed the finger back at New Labour and led to an unpleasant meeting with the chief whip, Donald Dewar, who believed that I had been responsible for the leak.

I couldn’t tell Dewar that I had been passing messages between Sinn Fein and Mowlam — who was actually sitting on the opposition front bench at the same time I was meeting Sinn Fein — as Mowlam would have been instructed to stop.

Mowlam was always grateful that I had covered her back and later came round for dinner with her partner Jon. I was still passing messages to Mowlam from Sinn Fein during the 1997 election. Following Blair’s victory, she urged Tony to give me a job on her Northern Ireland team — a request he sensibly refused as my presence would have made negotiations with Unionists impossible.

As peace talks started, I decided anything I had to say could only make matters worse, and I took a private vow of silence.

The efforts of people like Adams, John Hume, Mowlam, and so many others — of all political persuasions — to make the Good Friday Agreement work remain seismic. It must not be underestimated.

In 2003, as mayor of London, I was delighted to welcome Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey to London as lord mayor of Belfast.

Chatting before the official welcome reception, Maskey and I wondered whether we should remind the assembled guests of the circumstances of our first meeting nearly 20 years before in Belfast. On that occasion Maskey, Adams, and others showed me their city — and I had my first experience of being stopped by an armed British soldier.

We talked. And we were right to talk.

I said then, and have continued to say ever since, that these were people trying to address the same issues as us, only in far more difficult and tragic circumstances.

I never would have believed in 1983 that two decades later a Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast would be guest of honour, marching with the first elected mayor of London, at the head of London’s St Patrick’s Day Parade.

My recent chat with Molloy reaffirmed my confidence that a united Ireland is absolutely inevitable. It was inevitable back in 1921 when the British government of the day gerrymandered Northern Ireland.

I still believe that no Labour government can be considered progressive or radical unless it acts as a persuader for Irish unity. There can be no external hurdles or barriers. The Good Friday Agreement is the roadmap.

As the document states, “It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland…”

Sinn Fein is now the largest party across Ireland. In the North, Michelle O’Neill will be First Minister (once the Assembly is restored). Meanwhile, in the South, Mary Lou McDonald is on course to become the next Taoiseach.

So — after 800 years of failure, recrimination, stalemate, and hostility — let us recognise that Britain cannot fix the problems of Ireland. Because Britain is the problem in Ireland.

This article originally appeared in The Morning Star