TWENTY YEARS ON
In 2007 the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland, composed of young people from both sides of the Border, and both parts of the sectarian divide, performed in Chicago’s Symphony Centre. I remarked afterwards that the young musicians from the North were the first generation of schoolchildren from there since 1969 not to have grown up in an environment blighted by violence. The era of Peace had commenced with the IRA Cessation in August 1994 and had been cemented by the political settlement known as the Good Friday Agreement concluded after lengthy negotiations in 1998. The Agreement was twenty years old last month.
The occasion was marked in Belfast despite the immediate pall cast by the continued absence of a power sharing Northern Ireland Executive, one of the cornerstone institutions established under the Agreement. And despite also the looming threat to the economic, political, and social status quo throughout the island posed by the impact of Brexit, however it eventually pans out.
The attendance at the main event on 10 April included most of those politicians of various hues who had participated in the negotiations leading up to the Agreement. These included Bill Clinton, whose hands – on approach had probably been vital in helping to persuade doubters, as well as Senator George Mitchell, who had chaired the all-party negotiations. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who stayed with the negotiations despite the death of his mother during the fraught final week, was there, as was Tony Blair, who remarked at the time that he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder. The group photograph includes also the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, as well as retired Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams together with representatives of minor parties.
The only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, sadly unable to attend through illness. This was particularly unfortunate given his role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, that process that eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the cessation of violence that followed. The debt we owe him is enormous. John Hume stands out.
There were many people involved in contributing to bringing about peace. Tanaiste Simon Coveney described the Good Friday Agreement as a ”child with many parents and godparents” and indeed it was – not just politicians but also dedicated and talented officials who never gave up trying and whose efforts and achievements behind the scenes are often overlooked. A landmark event recognising their contribution, prompted by the GFA anniversary, took place in Dublin in late March – a one day Conference in the Royal Irish Academy. Entitled “Reflections on the thirty-year Road to the Good Friday Agreement” the Conference focussed on the input and experience of Irish officials from several Government Departments, but chiefly from the Department of Foreign Affairs, in dealing with events in Northern Ireland since 1969.
Virtually all the senior officials and advisers involved, – most now retired – made contributions to panel discussions in four chronologically ordered segments. The first covered the early years from the origins, through Sunningdale (1973-4), to the New Ireland Forum (1983-4). The second dealt with the mid 1980s including the Anglo Irish Agreement (1985) and the early years of the Maryfield Secretariat. The third segment addressed the road to the cease fires via the discussions and negotiations which led to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. The final panel discussion took the story up to the Good Friday Agreement and its aftermath. The result overall was a fascinating insider account of the complexities involved and encountered in working through to a durable settlement. The proceedings were recorded and will constitute a valuable oral archive.
The Good Friday Agreement was very much a game changer. Thanks to it the North has had weapons decommissioning, the normalisation of security arrangements, including root and branch reform of the police, prisoner releases, progress on equality and human rights, and, at the political level, the establishment of a power-sharing executive and a devolved legislature. These “Strand One” issues have been complemented by Cross-Border / North-South (“Strand Two) political institutions as well as some all-island economic bodies to enhance cooperation. The overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement in separate referenda (71% in favour in the North, 94% in the South) has seen the South give up its Constitutional claim to Northern Ireland and the enshrinement of the principles of self-determination and consent.
It has not all been positive, as the current political impasse (now over twelve months) at Stormont exemplifies. Yet we have been there before – the Executive has been suspended on several occasions, including a four and a half year period from 2002 to 2007. The issue which prompted Sinn Fein’s withdrawal was hardly insurmountable – the refusal of Arlene Foster to step aside temporarily – but masked a number of parity of esteem issues, including the Irish Language, which again could surely be overcome. Cue Brexit; a deal was in the offing when the DUP’s ten Westminster MP’s, flushed with the hubris of keeping Teresa May in power, and staunchly pro-Brexit, scuppered it.
Any hope also that the Agreement would help “normal” politics to supplant tribal affiliations has so far not been realised. Indeed the chief political development of the last two decades has seen growth in support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, representing the more extreme rather than the middle, at the expense of the two centre parties – the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists – with little prospect of reversal; the moderate and non -sectarian Alliance Party remains mired at less than 10% of the vote. Nor has there been sufficient progress in reconciliation between the communities or in treating legacy issues adequately, while paramilitary activity, especially in racketeering, has yet to be addressed.
Nevertheless overall there has been a profound transformation in the North, with tourism booming and the quality of life for its citizens across the board greatly improved. And, the most obvious political manifestation – that despite the suspensions, the DUP and Sinn Fein have learned to work together. The Agreement has changed the image of Northern Ireland immeasurably and led to major investments in hotels, in new jobs, and generated a widespread feel-good outlook. The Border has all but melted away and with it some at least of the paranoia and fear among unionists. By any standard the Agreement has succeeded. It is not perfect but what settlement ever is? Right now, however, there is uncertainty regarding Brexit. While a return to the nightmare of the past seems unlikely, there is no telling what will happen. A known unknown. There is little doubt that a restored Executive, pulling together, would help.