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Day 20: Hope and History Rhyme

Updated: Aug 28, 2019



New York’s Times Square feels like the centre of the world.

The relentless rush and roar of traffic. The press of the crowd. The flickering lights and ever changing images of the towering digital billboards.

But on the icy cold morning of 5th December 2007, as I stood shivering on a small square of pavement in the heart of New York, the clamour and chaos of the city seemed to stop for a moment of history.

The world’s biggest video screen (at that time) suddenly revealed the laughing and jubilant faces of two men who held Northern Ireland’s still fragile peace process in their hands: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. The First and deputy First Ministers, on an action-packed trade mission to the United States, were ringing the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange.

My BBC colleague Paul Doran tucked his arm into mine as we stared up at the seven storey high projector where Martin McGuinness was now giving a speech urging companies to invest in Northern Ireland.

“I hate admitting this and I know you will, too,” said Paul, “but I feel a little emotional. This is a special moment. It feels like it might work.” I was relieved. It was OK to admit that it wasn’t just the biting wind that was making my eyes water.

Minutes later, the two men literally stopped the Times Square traffic as they strode out of the NASDAQ building and across the road, heading for our waiting camera, leaving the entourage of party officials and Invest NI staff trailing in their wake.

Before they reached us, however, a group of young Irish tourists surrounded them, asking for photos and autographs. “Can’t believe you two are here together!” “Do you honestly get on with each other?” “Are you friends away from the cameras or is it just an act?”

The young interrogators asked the sort of straightforward questions that political journalists generally considered themselves too grand to ask.

One woman, a nurse from Dundalk, hung back from the group. She came over to me. “I can’t take this in,” she said. “I never thought I would see these two having a laugh and getting on like this, never mind travelling around the States together. Would you ask Dr Paisley if I can get my picture taken with him? My dad’s a real republican, he’d think this is hilarious.”

I took her camera, steered her over to the group, and arranged the photo. Ian Paisley made a booming joke, everyone laughed and the picture was snapped for posterity.

But why did I feel moved by that one moment in Times Square? In 2007, I’d been reporting on the hopes, fears, trials, tribulations, successes and failures of the Northern Ireland peace process for two decades. A former boss had described me, rather unkindly, but perhaps not inaccurately, as a “weary warhorse”.

I was certainly cynical and rarely felt a personal connection to a news event, much less an emotional response. After years of reporting on murder and mayhem, I’d assumed a cloak of professional detachment.

The last time I’d shed a tear over a news story was in August 1998, on the long drive home from Omagh after six days reporting on the devastation caused by the Real IRA bomb. I’d intruded on the grief of families, spoken to hollow-eyed survivors, watched thousands follow coffins along country roads. A pall of despair hung over the town and I was relieved to be stood down by the newsdesk.

I drove for miles in silence before turning on the radio. The late BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson was playing listeners’ dedications to the people of Omagh. His tone was gentle, respectful and warm. His eloquence and empathy caused me to break down in an unexpected flood of tears and I sat sobbing over the steering wheel on the hard shoulder of the M1. Later that night I told a friend: “Omagh was the end of hope. Forget the Good Friday Agreement. This country is finished.”

But it wasn’t. I’d allowed deep sadness and over-tiredness to cloud my judgement. Peace was secure. The process was developing. Political progress was unstoppable. Soon I was swept along with every other journalist in events that brought welcome progress, and, inevitably, more frustration: the formation of the first Assembly, the various suspensions of devolution, the wrangling over decommissioning, yet more rounds of talks and then that seminal moment in May 2007 when devolved government was restored and Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness were sworn in as First and deputy First Ministers.

They were quickly dubbed “The Chuckle Brothers”, much to the disapproval of some within the DUP’s ranks and the disgust of some victims’ groups. Others were, at best, baffled by the apparent warmth and mutual respect on display from the once strident firebrand DUP leader and the former hardline IRA commander.

To the journalists and civil servants who followed them around New York, from business breakfast to working lunch, from drinks reception to stock exchange floor, it was clear that the double act was not just an act. It was, rather, a deep and abiding friendship forged by two men who had trod radically different paths in life, but ultimately overcame enormous political differences to help create a new beginning for Northern Ireland.

And that was, I think, what prompted my rare moment of emotion in Times Square that cold December morning. It was, for me, almost a decade after the crushing tragedy and despair of Omagh, the return of hope.

Just six months later, in June 2008, Ian Paisley resigned, later saying that he had been edged out by senior party figures who were unhappy with his leadership. His relationship with Martin McGuinness undoubtedly played a part in his departure.

Ten years on, both men are dead and we’re close to 15 months with no Executive and little prospect of a functioning Stormont government any time soon. The political atmosphere is poisonous, parties appear to be battening down the hatches and the British and Irish governments – distracted by the challenges of Brexit less than a year away – seem to have run out of ideas to end the stalemate.

I’ve no time for those who say the Agreement is finished, the process is dead and it will take another generation to put us back on the path to shared government. I made that mistake of embracing despair and deep cynicism in 1998. I was wrong.

If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could find common ground and friendship, then their successors will eventually find a way back to shared government. Even a weary warhorse can still have hope.

Journalist Yvette Shapiro is a television and radio producer and presenter. She is the series producer of the BBC current affairs series, 'The Top Table'.

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