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Leader comment: Still agreed in Northern Ireland?

by
14 April 2023

IN JULY 1998, George Mitchell, the former US senator, was awarded the Liberty Medal in the United States for the important part that he played in securing the Good Friday Agreement. When receiving the medal, he said: “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sus­­tained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no mat­­ter how hurtful, peace can prevail.” Mr Mitchell, now 89, was planning to be in Belfast this week despite currently receiving treated for leuk­­aemia. He might now be tempted to say that there is no such thing as a peace that cannot be ended, given the suc­­ces­­sion of state­­­ments and actions that have threatened the Agreement in re­­cent months, from the cavalier framing of the post-­­Brexit protocol to the stand-offs that have brought Stormont gov­­ern­­ment to a stand­­still. The 25th anniversary of the Agreement is thus opportune, a reminder of the open violence that existed be­­fore it — and could break out again if sus­­­­picion and hostility are not held in check.

For now, it is hard to believe that anyone who remembers the killings and maimings during the Troubles — and the matri­archs, in particular, who had such a hand in turning the tide of opinion — would allow the hard-won peace and pros­­per­­ity of the past 25 years to be abandoned. But it is always hard to con­­ceive why anyone should opt for violence. It is fondly thought of as a last resort, but, as we have seen in Eastern Europe, a thankfully few political leaders deploy vio­­lence with a careless cynicism to achieve ends that cannot be gained by legitimate, democratic means. It is this thwarting or cir­­cumventing of democracy which carries such a threat in Northern Ireland. Whatever the causes of the disagreements that have stalled the Northern Ireland Assembly, the effect has been to remove the image and example of nationalists’ and loyalists’ work­­­­ing together for the common good. Unless the stand-off can be resolved, and quickly, the vital message that compromise does not equal betrayal is not being broadcast to the more extreme ele­­ments in each community.

Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh from 1986 to 2006, was another whose contribution to the Agree­­ment will never be fully known. The fruits of his efforts, though, persist in the closeness that has developed between the Churches. It is now un­­remark­able that the Anglican and Roman Catholic Arch­bishops of Armagh address their communities to­­gether at fest­ivals. In their Easter message, Arch­­bishops McDowell and Martin wrote of the anni­versary. Sadly, they had to ask: “Have we, in the Christian community in Ire­land, allowed our­selves to forget the greatness of this achieve­ment, the sacrifices and risk-taking that made it happen, the light it shone into the darkest of days and the prom­ise and hope it offered?” It is for the people of Northern Ireland to tell their politicians that they have not for­gotten, and demand that their representatives stop behaving as if they had.

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