Paul Vallely: The Good Friday Agreement, 20 years on

13 April 2018

Northern Ireland remains divided, but there are grounds for optimism, says Paul Vallely

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Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement, on 10 April 1998

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement, on 10 April 1998

THE incompatibilities of the solar and lunar calendars meant that this year we had Easter before the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement — and yet there is something apt about that.

The anniversary, on Tuesday, was greeted with a certain gloom. Pundits pointed out that power-sharing in Northern Ireland collapsed more than a year ago. And now, they said, the uncertainties of Brexit threaten further to jeopardise the fragile peace which has come to these islands since the men of violence gave up their guns.

Hillary Clinton was the most prominent international figure to warn that “if short-term interests take precedent over solving the long-term challenges that still exist in Northern Ireland, then it is clear that the hand of history will be both heavy and unforgiving.”

We need to be far more positive than this. Last time I went to Northern Ireland was to visit the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic Museum. The experience was almost unrecognisable from the periods I had spent there as Belfast correspondent for The Times in the 1980s, and editor of the Irish edition of the Sunday Times in the 1990s. Then, fear stalked the streets as more than 3500 people were killed by paramilitaries. Today, there is a wonderful ordinariness to those same streets.

Most strikingly, in a recent poll of residents of Northern Ireland, when asked whether they were Unionists or Nationalists, 47 per cent — and 57 per cent of the younger generation — replied that they were “Neither”. You would not know this from the institutional politics. The corollary to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the renegotiation conducted in St Andrews in 2006, created a situation in which the electorate are obliged to vote not for their favoured candidate, but against the party that they dislike the most. The middle ground has shrunk: the SDLP and official Unionists are being replaced by the hardliners of the DUP and Sinn Fein, who are currently in a stalemate over issues of identity such as the Irish language.

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Yet the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops were correct in their recent joint statement that noted that, although the Good Friday Agreement is complex and controversial, its “explicit rejection of the use or threat of violence, together with its emphasis on the principles of partnership, equality and mutual respect” still offers “a framework for a new beginning”.

Gerry Adams, the former apologist for the IRA, conveyed something similar this week when he said that the agreement was a defining moment in the history of Ireland, but not a settlement: “It never pretended to be. It is an agreement on a journey. Not the destination.”

This is a statement of optimism, not hope. That is clear from the recent poll, and an interesting Radio 4 programme this week, Generation Neither, in which twenty-somethings watching Ireland beat England in the Six Nations final bridged the old sectarian divide in conversations that rejected Unionism and Nationalism in favour of a plain politics of “progress”.

Reconciliation, when it comes, will be shaped by this generation and the one after. It will be a long-term process. A peace agreement is only the beginning. But this new generation looks very able to build upon it.

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