In 1998, the killing in Northern Ireland had ceased and politicians of all stripes were busy working out the terms of peace talks that would later culminate in the Belfast Agreement, a major milestone in the Irish peace process.
Yet, as politicians laboured away in Parliament, the media began to expose rifts in the negotiations.
“Television can’t deal well with peace — if you put a blue sky on a television screen and hold that shot for more than five seconds, people will be getting their remote control and searching for storms,” said prominent Irish folk musician Tommy Sands.
“We decided to create a bit of a storm,” he said.
Gathering up a group of schoolchildren, half Catholic and half Protestant, Sands walked to Parliament singing Carry On, a simple peace song.
Unexpectedly, the group was met on the steps of Parliament by a score of politicians with tears in their eyes.
Deputy first minister Seamus Mallon later called the event a “defining moment in the peace process.”
Politicians were mostly confident that they were on the right path, but they had begun to waver, fearing they didn’t have the support of their constituents.
“I often liken it to two buses coming towards each other on a narrow bridge and neither driver giving way because he didn’t want to let down his passengers,” said Sands.
“The passengers have to get up and go to the driver and say, ‘Look, you can hold back a little bit because we all want to go forward,’” he said.
Dubbed “the bard of peace” in his home country, Sands came into folk music — “the music of what happens” — from birth. The Sands Family, a musical group composed of his five siblings, soon became one of Ireland’s most influential folk groups.
As a songwriter, Sands started out writing whimsical songs about “pretty farm maids and the month of May,” but the violence of the Irish Troubles soon focused his songwriting on more serious subjects.
There Were Roses, Sands’ best-known song, tells the story of friends Isaac and Sean, a Protestant and Catholic both killed by ethnic violence.
In Ireland, there is still a long way to go, said Sands. But the killing has stopped, and the “Irish template” has become a beacon to strife-engulfed countries the world over.
The key is a system that gave equal representation to the views of all sides — instead of power constantly being handed to the majority.
“The difference between majoritarianism and democracy is very important,” said Sands.
“Two tribes of people, they can live side by side provided that the government and the decision-making process respects both those sides,” he said.
Ideally, the US presidential election could be structured so that the candidate with the most votes becomes president, and his opponent becomes vice-president.
“That may not work in practice, but if you get that mindset going, then everything changes,” said Sands.
Politics seems to be the final area of society in which co-operation is shunned, he said.
“When driving a car, people stop when the light is red and they go when it’s green — we share things all the time in every other way, yet in politics we seem to say, ‘Well, first past the post gets everything,’” said Sands.
It is the troubadour that has the power and responsibility to relay that message of co-operation to the masses, said Sands. He has often noted that the ancient bards of Ireland wore coats of many colors, signifying their ties to all clans, but their allegiance to none.
“You have a lot of power standing on a stage or writing with a pen; that’s a very special gift that can be used in a positive sort of way,” said Sands.
“A certain movement of the pen or a certain movement of the voice, if that stops one person from being injured or killed, it’s very important to use that,” he said.
Just before leaving on tour, Sands held an event in his village in which Geoffrey Donaldson, of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Gerry Adams, of Sinn Fein, joined together in song. Representing opposite sides of the Irish political spectrum, the two refuse to shake hands in public.
“If you can’t touch each other or be touched in any other way, music can do it,” said Sands.
Tommy Sands, along with son Fionan and daughter Moya, is playing at the Old Fire Hall on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the Yukon Arts Centre box office, Arts Underground or at the door.