Peace: time for serious soul-searching
US President Joe Biden is to visit Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement (GFA).
He has accepted a formal invitation issued by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and doubtless will be keen to stress the amount of time and effort the US devoted to the brokering of the deal.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating milestones, and there is no doubt that the GFA counts as a very important one but for the moment celebrating it is the last thing we need.
There is a dangerous tendency amongst politicians to regard the GFA as a definitive settlement – a box ticked on a spread sheet, a problem solved. But it isn’t, and it’s not.
It provided the conditions for ending armed conflict, was endorsed by voters in referenda in both jurisdictions, and laid down how devolution and Stormont would work.
To reprise, the GFA comprises two inter-linked elements – a Multi-Party Agreement between most of Northern Ireland's political parties, and the British–Irish Agreement between the British and Irish governments.
The agreement also restored self-government to Northern Ireland and built in commitments to civil and political rights, cultural parity of esteem, police reform, paramilitary disarmament and early release of paramilitary prisoners, followed by demilitarisation. It also created a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
It was an impressive achievement which reflects great credit on its architects and backers in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Britain and the USA.
But it was never intended as a definitive solution to our travails, it was an important step on the journey, not the destination. It was known and acknowledged back then that peace-making was a process that would take time, patience and courageous leadership from all parties.
Yet from 2010 onwards the British government took its eye off the ball. The Secretary of State had traditionally gone to an experienced heavyweight. But from then on we had a succession of lightweights from the now disgraced Owen Paterson to Theresa Villiers to Karen Bradley.
During the Brexit referendum Ms Villiers, a committed Brexiteer, said that existing border arrangements would continue if the UK left the EU. "I believe that the land border with Ireland can remain as free-flowing after a Brexit vote as it is today," she said.
"There is no reason why we have to change the border arrangements in the event of a Brexit because they have been broadly consistent in the 100 years since the creation of Ireland as a separate state.”
And in 2018 Bradley told a magazine she had not understood Northern Irish politics before being appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, saying: "I didn't understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa," she said.
She was later forced to apologise after claiming that people killed by the state during the conflict lost their lives at the hands of people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way."
The appointment of people who showed such extraordinary ignorance to such a sensitive and important role was compounded by the ruling Conservative Party’s negotiating a “confidence and supply agreement” with the DUP in 2017, who then Prime Minister Theresa May described as “friends and allies”.
At the time other parties expressed concern at the implications for the Good Friday Agreement of the British government making such an arrangement with one party here at a time when Northern Ireland’s Executive and Assembly had collapsed in acrimony.
But that was a mere prelude to what was to come.
During the 2019 election campaign incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to either misrepresent or misunderstand the Northern Ireland Protocol which he had signed up to. He continued to do this. In August of that year he was still insisting there would be an Irish Sea border "over my dead body", despite the fact the government had already submitted applications to the EU to create border control posts at Northern Ireland's ports.
Within two years the British government had lost the trust of all factions in Northern Ireland. Worst of all the DUP now felt it had been lied to and taken for fools.
Sadly there’s more, much more. We have argued before that peace takes time and patience is required.
However there are some areas where a lack of progress makes things worse.
The failure to address legacy issues is the most striking example of this.
The conflict in Northern Ireland was not ended by the victory of one side or the other. It was a messy, brutal and dirty affair which involved the infliction of a lot of suffering.
No system is going to be able to address every need, but victims and their families do need some means of providing closure to their loss. A process modelled on the South African Truth and Commission might help. Sadly we’ve been unable to negotiate something similar for ourselves.
As well as an inability to agree on how victims are defined we’ve also been hampered by the British government’s reluctance to have its own record examined, especially regarding collusion with armed gangs and the withholding of intelligence which might have saved lives.
In addition vested interests combine to ensure the survival of sectarian division in education, despite a wealth of evidence that this contributes to broader communal division.
Relations between the two main parties are, to say the least, strained, with the Executive and Assembly seemingly either collapsed or when not, at high risk of failure. Consequently multi-year budgeting is not an option long term planning impossible and the very future of key institutions in doubt.
Far from rejoicing at the restoration of accountable democracy, the faltering progress at Stormont and its failure to favourably impact the population has led to a crisis in confidence in politics and politicians.
Just as significant has been the collective failure of all British governments since 1998 to do enough to alleviate poverty in Northern Ireland, especially in those areas most impacted by conflict.
Far too many people are no better off now than they were when the Troubles were raging, social mobility has worsened too, making dire economic conditions a trap from which, for far too many there can be no escape.
Plenty have enjoyed a peace dividend, but they tend to be people who do not live in those areas which were most affected by violence.
And without the prospect of a better life, even the realistic hope of one, it can’t be a great surprise that paramilitary gangs still have influence in areas of deprivation.
So yes, it is great that Biden plans a visit, and the anniversary should be marked. But what is more important than a load of politicians jetting in for an orgy of self-praise and back-slapping would be some quiet reflection on what went right and wrong and what needs to be addressed if we are to build from here.
Most important of all would be a mutual recognition that it will take time and money, and a lot of attention from responsible people, not a party every now and then for the great and the good interspersed with years of neglect. Leaders in Westminster as well as Ireland can never again allow themselves to take their eyes off the ball.
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