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How Bono helped bring peace to Northern Ireland

BELFAST — Did Bono and U2 help seal the deal that brought peace to Northern Ireland?

The rockers did their part.

After American, British and Irish leaders signed the landmark Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the ultimate decision went to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998 for a referendum vote.

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All eyes were on Northern Ireland, where 3,600 had died, most of them civilians, during three decades of the Troubles. Would the people vote up or down on an aspirational but imperfect deal?

Just a few days before the vote, U2 burst onto the stage at Waterfront Hall in Belfast to back the peace accord.

The global band from Dublin was already known for mixing the personal, spiritual and political, with hit songs including “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” about the British army assault on 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march in 1972.

After playing a few songs in Belfast, Bono called onto the stage the leaders of unionism and nationalism: David Trimble, a leading Protestant politician in Northern Ireland, and John Hume, an advocate of nonviolence who led Northern Ireland’s largest Catholic political party. The two had previously avoided shaking hands with each other in public.

Bono joined his hands with theirs and raised them in the air — the black-clad superstar flanked by politicians dressed in pastel starched shirts, pleated trousers and dad ties.

In an unprecedented display of peace, Northern Ireland’s top Protestant and Catholic politicians joined with U-2 singer Bono at a rock concert in May 1998. (Video: AP)

“I found myself in between two great men,” Bono recalled in an interview with the Irish Times, as part of the Good Friday Agreement’s 25th anniversary coverage. “Not the meat but the butter in the sandwich. The referee at the big fight holding up the hands that history should be kind to, and everyone living on this island.”

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He told the Irish Times: “In the dressing room I had one half-good idea that turned out great, which was to win over the crowd with an impossible ask for a politician: ‘Could you walk on the stage and not speak?’

“‘If you speak,’ I told them, ‘you’ll likely invite some boos as is the tradition at rock shows. A photo op is all we need here. This is deadly serious, but it’s also show business.’ They both smiled.”

The moment onstage became one of the defining images of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Bono was critical to it all,” said Tim Attwood, one of the concert organizers and a former politician with Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland. “He knew exactly how important it was to be a showman and how to create a global iconic image. It led the news everywhere.”

Attwood told The Washington Post, “We had to get 2,500 kids to the venue, so we just started ringing schools. Word spread and so many people wanted to be there.” Tickets were distributed free to high-schoolers in Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

The stipulation from Bono was that both Hume and Trimble had to be involved. The latter needed a wee bit of convincing.

“David Trimble was a big Elvis fan, so he knew it was about children’s futures and that music spoke to them,” Attwood said.

In a way, it would be like Elvis Presley’s meeting with President Richard M. Nixon at the White House.

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Did it make a difference to the referendum outcome?

Attwood is among those who thinks so. He said pollsters at the time estimated that it increased turnout by about 6 percent and helped get unionists over the line. “Those young people at the concert went home and told their parents to vote yes,” he said. “Bono was important to all that.”

Quinton Oliver, a director of the “yes” campaign pushing the peace deal, was more hesitant to estimate the Bono factor.

“You can never tell what difference it made, because votes are not on one particular item. It’s a mood. It was part of intensifying the mood. Obviously it was positive and part of it, but you can’t attribute it to one single event,” he told The Post.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also made three trips to Northern Ireland in those final days. President Bill Clinton urged people “to vote their hopes and not their fears.”

“But it may have been the Belfast appearance of Irish singer Bono of the rock group U2 that helped stem the flow of Protestant votes into the “no” camp,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1998. “That image sent a message to voters that this referendum was about political unity more than political prisoners.”

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John Hume’s daughter Mo recalls hearing about the concert.

“I was living in El Salvador in 1998, so this was pre-internet and all the news about Bono came to me third hand,” she said.

“I was 25, so at that time I thought the photo of Bono, David Trimble and my da was cringe worthy. The yellow shirt and awful tie. We all had a laugh at this photo of two middle aged men and the rock star. We were all to him, ‘Would you look at the shape of you?’ The big question was who decided on that yellow shirt?”

She thought, “With retrospect, you can see it is an iconic photograph and the coming together of the generations. It is such a wonderfully awkward photograph.”

She said her father understood the power of the image, but wasn’t overwhelmed by celebrity.

“For him, being a politician was about serving the community and getting back to bread and butter politics,” she said.


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