THE Anglican and Roman Catholic Primates in Ireland have said that the Good Friday Agreement, signed 20 years ago on Tuesday, brought peace and a framework for a new beginning. But they warned that the Agreement alone could not heal the generational hurts or solve all problems.
In a statement, the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, and his RC counterpart, the Most Revd Eamon Martin, said that the Agreement had sought to address contentious political problems in the context of decades of violence, divided communities, and immense suffering and death.
“As such it was a complex and, in places, controversial document. However, we are convinced that its explicit rejection of the use or threat of violence, together with its emphasis on the principles of ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’ as the ‘basis of relationships’ within these islands, has continuing potential to transform society and life for all of us. Nothing remotely its equal has been outlined then or since. . .
“We acknowledge the efforts of the international community who not only invested significantly in the process which led to the Agreement, but who have remained alongside us as our partners for peace. Above all we thank God for the generation of young people who are growing up without the sounds of bomb or bullet on a daily basis; for the livelihoods and businesses which have not been destroyed; for the families and neighbourhoods who have been spared the heartbreaking pain and trauma of death or serious injury.
“No single political agreement can be expected, of itself, to solve or heal the deep wounds in any society. The Good Friday Agreement offered a framework for a new beginning, outlining the interlocking structures and safeguards under which the relationships required for healthy democracy could develop and be sustained.”
Acknowledging the problems that Northern Ireland still faces, they also pointed to opportunities.
“These are problems and opportunities for all of us — and not simply politicians — to solve and grasp. Some say we have failed in this task; others that we have only just begun. Too often, any vision of a common good has been submerged beneath sectional interests. At this present impasse in political life in Northern Ireland it is worth asking ourselves: is it because the principles and structure of the Good Friday Agreement have failed us, or, rather is it that we have together failed to make the most of those supportive principles which it offered?. . .
“The peace we have today took a great effort to achieve; it will equally take risk, and leadership at all levels, to maintain. It is therefore our sincere shared prayer that this anniversary will help to rekindle a spirit of opportunity, healing and hope for lasting peace which is now needed more than ever. We call on all people of good will to be ambassadors of reconciliation, helping to rebuild trust and mutual respect in order to move us further forward and closer together as a society that places the common good as its primary purpose.”
As Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Tony Blair, and Bertie Ahern gathered in Belfast with other prime movers of the Agreement, to celebrate the anniversary, a Sky News poll suggested something of the tasks that still lie ahead: 51 per cent of respondents said that they had few, if any, friends outside their own religious denomination; the “Peace Walls” across Belfast separating Roman Catholics from their Protestant neighbours still remain in place; and trans-generational trauma has contributed to suicides rising by one third in the past two decades.
None the less, the Agreement has resulted in a whole generation growing up in Northern Ireland without daily bombs and murders.
President Clinton said that the Belfast Agreement stood not just “for what happened but for what can happen”. Senator George Mitchell said that, by itself, the Agreement was not a guarantee of peace, stability, and reconciliation, but it made these things possible.
The elephant in the room, if there was one, was the absence of a functioning Assembly at Stormont: the Civil Service is still running Northern Ireland after an impasse of more than a year. A preoccupation with Brexit, to the exclusion of solving vital problems in Northern Ireland, is being blamed by many on both sides of the divide, given that a majority in the province voted in favour of remaining in the European Union. Senator Mitchell recalled that the UK and EU gave “a solemn promise” that Brexit would not mean a return to a hard border.
Bertie Ahern, a former Taoiseach, said: “When you think back on the issues we had to agree on like the release of prisoners, decommissioning, and the reform of the police, never mind the shape of new political institutions, the current problems don’t appear unsolvable.”
On Monday, the three principal Loyalist paramilitary organisations, Ulster Defence Force, Ulster Volunteer Force, and Red Hand Commandos, issued a joint statement committing themselves to exclusively peaceful activities in the future.
The statement was read out by the former Church of Ireland Primate, the Rt Revd Alan Harper, at a press conference on Monday. “We fully support the rule of law in all areas of life and emphatically condemn all forms of criminal activity,” the statement said. “Individuals who use criminality to serve their own interests at the expense of loyalist communities are an affront to the true principles of loyalism.”
Norman Hamilton, a former Presbyterian Moderator, and Harold Good, a former Methodist President, were also present at the press conference, alongside loyalist leaders.
From the archive: The task set on Good Friday - Church Times Leader, 17 April, 1998
Read comment from Paul Vallely the accord 20 years on