10 April 2018

Despite the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains troubled


In 1986 when the sectarian carnage of Northern Ireland’s Troubles was running hot in my Fermanagh border community, I left to start my first term at Durham University.

Like many young people from a Protestant heritage, further education over on the “mainland” was a both a way to expand your academic horizons and to explore a world not defined by killing over a few stray lines of Christian liturgy.

Some things we brought with us. My new English chum’s puzzlement at the number of times we swapped sides of the road on the way into town was just an ingrained subconscious avoidance of parked unattended cars. Empty Northern Irish cars in a town centre too often contained a kinetic freight of badness manufactured with love in some Co. Leitrim hayshed.

I use this as an example of the many ways, large and small, that the absence of armed conflict in Northern Ireland has allowed people to unsling a burden of fear and taste a normality long denied to them.

Twenty years ago today, this new dispensation was given birth on Good Friday 1998 in the form of the Belfast Agreement. The word of peace was made flesh on the pages of an agreement voted on by the people on the island of Ireland in both jurisdictions. An overwhelming majority voted in favour of an agreement despite fierce criticism at the time from the DUP.

Twenty years is a long time in politics but the blink of an eye in Northern Ireland, where ancient grievances continue to be nurtured and burnished in the absence of accountable devolved Government. The Good Friday Agreement could never hope to install government for grown-ups in a place so infantilised by tribal violence. A complex system of mandatory coalition created the only type of power-sharing executive possible, a sort of circular firing squad. Martin McGuinness pulled the trigger over an alleged financial scandal involving the DUPs leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster. Seamus Heaney’s “hope and history” stopped rhyming and fell back into familiar discordance. Who is to blame for the crushing of all this hope and what is to be done?

But let’s start the balance sheet with the credits – the walking dead. These are the men, women and children getting on with life in the absence of paramilitary violence and its security response and still above ground as a consequence. It’s impossible to quantify the human consequences of the bullet never fired or the bomb that never blew but it seems reasonable to believe that the Belfast agreement insistence on exclusively peaceful means for political progress saved countless innocent lives. That isn’t trivial. Ask a widow. Visit a churchyard.

But what about the walking wounded? The tens of thousands of bereaved, injured, maimed citizens who bore the horrible burden of the Troubles. It wouldn’t be right or accurate to represent them as one constituency. People like Gordon Wilson who lost his daughter in the IRA bombing of my home town, Enniskillen. People like Patrick Kielty whose blameless father was murdered by Loyalist terrorists. These people demonstrate a grace in the face of cruelty in the interests of peace which is staggering.

But behind them stand mostly silent legions of damaged people who were asked to forgo justice in the interests of a greater peace. People who could not agree to forgive and forget as they saw the killers of their kin, having served derisory sentences for acts of utter barbarity, now sitting in government. People who served as agents of the state in protecting Northern Ireland from anarchy but are now at best relegated to the same status as those terrorists they held the line against. People everywhere, still hurting.

The great defect of the Good Friday Agreement is that it failed to address the future of the past – a blighted past which anchors so many people in misery and bitterness and leaves them unable to move on. This is the plague dirt the institutions of a new government were built on. There are many warm and compassionate words in the text of the Belfast agreement about legacy and victims. It’s understandable that many of the architects believed that the architecture of the institutions – a formidably complex infrastructure of checks and balances – would be enough of a framework for hopeful green shoots to emerge of their own accord. To that extent, the strands of the agreement looked hopefully in every direction except inwards at the real problem – trust.

Those who support the Good Friday Agreement often endow it will the same mythic and mawkish sentimentality that now applies to “our NHS”. This is problematic because, for all its extraordinary achievements, it is a flawed settlement. It ought to be possible to critique its deficiencies honestly without being made to feel like an adult making off with a child’s balloon. Those who speak longingly for the “institutions” often ignore the fact that since the GFA was signed, the executive has been suspended no fewer than four times and has now collapsed of its own accord. On each and every occasion, the reasons were different but they boil down to a fundamental lack of trust between political parties whose voters remain unreconciled over a way of speaking about the past, never mind dealing with it.

Brexit is the latest stone to be thrown into the peace processor but even if a seamless border can remain buried in that contested frontier (presumably operated by unicorns), the sour indigestible lumps of our shared history will remain. Trust – the lack of it – will continue as it has to render reconciliation impossible. Trust can’t be internationalised, externalised or managerialised.  It is men and women who have hurt each other grievously making peace. It has no stage in Oslo, no locus in New York, no traction in Dublin. Trust waits quietly to be made in the lanes and townlands of Tyrone, in the back streets of estates in Belfast, in the unglamorous places where bitterness has pooled and stagnated.

It’s rather ironic that the one institution the Belfast agreement created which might have addressed this issue, the Civic Forum, last met in 2002 and was quietly abandoned in 2013. The forum was intended as a means of keeping the tribal chieftains at Stormont connected to grass-roots life in the province across public life and included victims’ representatives. In the absence of an executive it is no surprise to see a groundswell of opinion in Northern Ireland in favour of a citizens’ assembly. If the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement cannot work, perhaps it is time for the people to have their say directly on how to solve the problems their elected representatives can’t or won’t. It is a hopeful sign in a fearful time.

I didn’t vote for the Belfast Agreement because I had left Northern Ireland for good when the referendum was held. I would have said yes, probably reluctantly, but knowing it was the right thing to do. Despite the glamour and retrospectives this week, its place in the history of our peacemaking is not yet assured. There are still mountains to climb for Northern Ireland’s communities to establish trust, but let us leave the last words to David Trimble, the Nobel laureate and leader of Unionism at the time of the Good Friday Agreement too often overlooked:

‘The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.’

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2016