Stuck in the slow lane, 25 years on

14 Apr 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 14 Apr 2023

Pic: Jonathan Meyer, Unsplash

The holiday break gave many of us cause to reflect on just how slow progress has been since those heady Easter days of 1998.

Then there was a sense that there was magic in the air, that anything was possible, that we were trembling on the verge of an era of peace, prosperity and communal goodwill.

The Good Friday Agreement was seen as a moment of reconciliation and a diplomatic triumph, the fruit of patient dialogue and goodwill.

Even those most cynical of observers, the press, felt they were seeing something very special, this was palpable to those of us working in the media at the time, it is even more so now, looking back at the various documentaries aired in recent days.

Yet the 25th anniversary of that historic day has come and gone, and this time the mood has been one of disappointment, not celebration: a sense of missed opportunities, even of failure.

The US President came, but he spent longer in bed than out and about in Belfast before crossing the border where he visibly relaxed only to commit a horrendous/hilarious gaffe when he mixed up the All Blacks rugby side with the Black and Tans.

Before Biden arrived he was subjected to abuse from senior politicians from the DUP.  

“Joe Biden hates the UK – I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said former DUP first minister  Dame Arlene Foster.

MP Sammy Wilson said Mr Biden was “anti-British”, adding: “He is pro-republican and he has made his antipathy towards Protestants in particular very well known.

And his colleague Ian Paisley said that “the poor fella is unfortunately quite gaffe prone,” adding: “It would be like a Frenchman coming over to you and telling you what to do in England.”

It was quite understandable, given the circumstances, that Mr Biden did not hang around, leaving Belfast for more convivial company in the Republic.

And it should be no surprise that the DUP were not exactly warm in their welcomes. After all the DUP was not party to the Good Friday Agreement - indeed present leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had been  a senior member of the Ulster Unionists’ negotiating delegation back in 1998.

Hours before the historic accord was struck, he famously left Castle Buildings at Stormont in protest at what his party was about to sign up to. Subsequently both he and Arlene Foster left the UUP for the DUP.

The DUP only joined the process in 2007 after the St Andrew’s Agreement.

The point is, as Scope has argued before, the Good Friday Agreement, however impressive it was to achieve, was not a definitive solution to our political problems, it wasn’t signed up to by all the parties. It wasn’t the destination, but it was an important step.

Peace-making is about much more than signing documents and getting a selfie with a world leader. It requires, patience, resilience, stamina and a very thick skin. More than anything it requires time, an awful lot of time and to be successful at it the ability to inspire members of the community you serve to compromise for the greater good.

People often talk about the importance of leadership, implying that if only political leaders could summon the courage they might pursue unpopular causes if they led to peace.

But to argue that shows a profound ignorance both of how politics works – it depends, after all on securing votes, and of political history in Ireland both in the north and south.

Politicians who are not aligned with their voters, or who fail to inspire them with a new vision are destined to fail.

Michael Collins epitomised this. When he signed the Anglo Irish Treaty in December 1921 with Britain he famously observed that he had just signed his own death warrant. Within a year he was killed in an ambush in the brutal civil war that followed.

It is ridiculous to blame slow political progress on politicians and to ascribe blame to them is not just pointless it is an abdication of the personal responsibility that sits with all of us to create a better, more prosperous land for all.

So that’s why it is important to revive the spirit that led to the historic agreement in 1998 and to collectively renew our sense of purpose to work together to build a society which will make all of us proud.

We need to understand what has not worked and why, and what needs to be done in order to make progress now and in the future. And this conversation needs to take place within communities in a process driven by the people themselves.

Yet there is another more urgent task: to restore locally elected, locally accountable government in Northern Ireland.

It has become fashionable to sneer at politicians and to express cynicism about what they did, and what they could achieve in office. After all they say the government here keeps collapsing but life carries on regardless.

This sort of cynicism is very much on trend, but is fundamentally ignorant.  

A government with no political leadership is a bit like a ship with no captain. It will continue on its set course and could do so indefinitely.

The trouble is without a democratic mandate it cannot improvise and react to crises and where, as at present, no budget has been passed and no Ministers are in place to decide how services should be funded in the future.

New legislation is impossible and strategies cannot be developed and implement the fundamental problems we face around our economy, health, education and the many areas across government which are in need of leadership and transformation. Our health service is already in imminent danger of collapse.

So one of the first problems to ponder is what we need to do to resolve the present stand-off. There appears to be no appetite within the DUP to budge, and the British government has now done a deal with the European Union and its room for manoeuvre is very limited. Direct rule, probably with an Irish dimension seems inevitable.

But whatever solution is adopted there will be a democratic deficit and no direct means of determining what people in Northern Ireland want.

The Women’s Coalition proposed one way of doing this that might have promoted more positive debate and dialogue.  

They knew that change was required in order to restore trust and confidence in the political process and in government itself. This requires involving ordinary citizens much more closely in decision-making, bringing, if you like government to the people.

They also acknowledged the role played by civic society in supporting conflict resolution. That is why they built the Civic Forum into the settlement. It operated between 2000 and 2002.

There were problems with the way the forum was constituted and its terms of reference and it was not regarded as a great success at the time, consequently the excitement it initially generated has been forgotten.

Since then there was an attempt to revive it amid the chaos and political vacuum of the last few years but the new structure would have been a panel of just six members.

Either way the forum was an idea ahead of its time. Since then there has been growing use of participatory democracy techniques which are known to increase public support for democratic institutions and so-called “wicked” problems. This question of how best to increase public participation in governance needs to be a central aspect of any future change to governance in Northern Ireland.

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