At this remove, and after so much water has flowed under the bridge, the unannounced, low-key Dublin meeting between Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill and then taoiseach Jack Lynch 50 years ago today hardly seems significant much less seismic but it was all of that.
The four-hour meeting was, along with an earlier one between O’Neill and Seán Lemass at Stormont in 1965, one of the stepping stones along the road to improved relationships and, eventually, after much heartache and horror, a peace supported by the majority of people happy to call this island their home.
The significance of the meeting was immediately recognised by the demagogue Ian Paisley. He, recognising that moderation and cooperation were the antidotes to his and to others fundamentalism, immediately condemned it. His response was to relentlessly undermine O’Neill, a policy which eventually ended the leadership of the moderate O’Neill. He was followed by the more traditional, less open unionist James Chichester-Clark beginning a process that is at the root of today’s self-imposed irrelevance in Stormont.
Three decades of carnage is the North’s great tragedy, but the alienation of those who would find a middle way and recognise all ambitions, is its ongoing tragedy. Had the O’Neill/Lynch entente cordiale realised its potential, thousands of lives would have been saved and today’s bitter die-hards would be silent onlookers rather than barriers to progress