They were two women in a crowd, neither famous nor powerful. But their joyful embrace embodied a moment few had believed possible: peace in Northern Ireland.
It was Saturday 23 May 1998 and the result of a referendum on the Good Friday agreement had just been announced. Setting aside fears and uncertainties, 71% of the population had voted in favour.
Such was the tumult in the King’s Hall in Belfast that the two women did not notice a Reuters photographer, Paul Hackett, taking their picture. The place was vibrating, everybody shouting, jumping, cheering. Northern Ireland had taken a leap into a new future.
The next day they saw their faces emblazoned across the front page of the Observer beneath a bold, simple headline: “A new people is born this morning”. They were not named or quoted but there was no mistaking the rapture. After 30 years of Troubles, 3,700 dead and 47,000 injured, here was catharsis.
“We were totally absorbed in the moment and had no idea that a picture had been taken,” said Jane Morrice, the woman on the left. Ann McCann, who was on the right, said the image captured a sense of boundless hope. “The whole place was on fire. People were dancing.”
Morrice and McCann spoke in a joint interview in Belfast this week as Northern Ireland, once again, faces a crossroads. If the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) continues paralysing the Stormont assembly and executive, the UK government, in consultation with Dublin, may restore direct rule over the region.
Sinn Féin, having just won a historic victory in local elections, is well placed to intensify pressure for a referendum on Irish unity. Unease over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future overshadowed recent commemorations for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.
For Morrice and McCann, the photograph of their younger selves is bittersweet. The peace has held all these years, a momentous achievement, but reconciliation remains dogged by sectarianism, division and political feuding.
“It would have been wonderful if the happiness of that moment could have been bottled and kept,” said Morrice, now 69. “The hopes were so high. We got peace, but reconciliation is still a long way off.” The spirit of 1998 can seem elusive, she said. “Will we ever be able to recreate that crest of a wave we were on?”
Despite loyalist threats and sporadic dissident republican violence, McCann, 77, does not fear a resumption of the Troubles: Peace feels embedded. “Thanks to the Good Friday agreement look how many people have been saved. But political progress has been at a snail’s pace. We just have to get it going again.”
The pair made separate political journeys to that moment of deliverance at the King’s Hall. Morrice was a Protestant from a leafy part of south Belfast, a relative sanctuary in the conflict. She worked as a BBC journalist in the 1980s and in the 1990s headed the European Commission’s office in Northern Ireland. McCann was a Catholic from west Belfast who in 1972 lost her brother, a teenage shipyard worker named Gerard Duddy, to a loyalist gunman. She became a founding member of the Peace People movement. The two met and became friends in 1996 after joining the Women’s Coalition, a cross-community party that won a seat at peace talks that paved the way to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.
The Observer’s splash steeled Morrice’s resolve to run for the Stormont assembly – part of new devolved power-sharing institutions: “The photo was life-changing for me because I wasn’t convinced that I was going to get involved in politics. Seeing that picture, it was like I no longer had a choice. I had to live up to it.” Morrice was elected in June 1998. After losing her seat in 2003, she promoted education and equality with Northern Ireland and pan-European organizations.
The Women’s Coalition ensured that victims’ rights and integrated education were included in the Good Friday Agreement text, but Catholics and Protestants still tend to live in segregated areas and attend segregated schools: “Reconciliation is moving in the right direction, but it’s slower than we would have hoped. There is so much more that needs to be done,” said Morrice.mMcCann is scathing about how Sinn Féin and DUP walkouts have crippled Stormont: “It’s indescribable how angry I feel at how it has been abused.” The latest impasse has led to drastic funding cuts for charities, including Eating Disorders Association NI, which she founded.
McCann worries that young people accept Sinn Féin’s insistence that there was no alternative to the IRA’s armed campaign: “They didn’t have to kill to get their political aims. Young people need to be educated about what happened.” On the plus side, she said Catholics no longer need to disguise Irish-sounding names when visiting Protestant areas. And she credits Alliance’s Naomi Long and other female politicians with carrying the torch lit by the Women’s Coalition: “It was such a divided place. Less so now. To change people’s minds will take a few generations.”
Morrice, who describes herself as a European unionist, said the UK’s withdrawal from the EU unravelled progress and shook her faith in Britain: “The two BS – Boris and Brexit – have made me think twice when I look across the water. In any proposal (for a united Ireland) I would have to see what’s on offer. Brexit whipped up anger and tension. We need to calm the nerves.”
She hopes the UK will rejoin the EU and that meantime Northern Ireland will exploit its unique trading position for jobs and investment.
The elation of 1998 has faded, but its legacy endures, said Morrice: “None of us knew what would come after. It was about getting up every day and making things better.” For 25 years, she has kept the blouse she wore at the King’s Hall – a talisman of a better future she still believes in.
Rory Carroll, Ireland correspondent
Published: 2023-06-11 07:00:44