Where Next For Northern Ireland? The Agreement, 14 Years On
When I was ten years old, I remember being dragged out one evening by my parents to the local primary school in Dundonald, East Belfast. Uncooperative and grouchy, I had to stand around bored for a time period that seemed like forever – there were so many grown-ups there, all queuing to stand in well-worn wooden booths to fill out pieces of paper with pencils. My parents probably tried to explain that it was important, but I just remember being intensely bored and wanting to go home.
That is my childish memory of the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, a landmark event in Northern Ireland’s history.
Imagine the optimism. Political parties, trade unions, community and voluntary organisations all coming together to urge people to vote ‘Yes.’ The owners of Belfast’s landmark Europa Hotel (once the most bombed hotel in the world) even taking it upon themselves to drape a colossal banner proclaiming ‘YES’ along the front of the building. Even Bono stuck his nose in to say yes. Yes for an end to violence, and pursuit of political objectives through peaceful and democratic means. Yes for the abolition (finally) of a democratic deficit with an elected Assembly to articulate the views of the people. Yes for equality provisions, a bill of rights, disposal of arms. On a thumping 81% turnout, 71% said ‘Yes.’
Fast-forward 14 years from that apparent endgame. While acknowledging that the end to violence was a hard-won and important victory, Northern Ireland is still deeply divided – in fact, arguably even more so. A recent report by the Community Relations Council lays down some pretty sobering facts. There are far more ‘peace walls’ dividing opposing communities now than there was in 1998. We are still sectarian, and worst of all, sectarian hate has turned out to lend itself very easily to other forms of hate, such as homophobia and racism. What was a sophisticated paramilitary infrastructure has, in many areas, swiftly become a sophisticated organised crime infrastructure. Despite the tireless efforts of many groups, for the most part we still go to school separately, we still grow up separately, we still live -and are housed – separately. Even apparent successes such as the efforts to transform the police into one that both communities could identify with are under threat, with a higher drop-out rate for catholic police officers.
The report’s authors even go as far as to say that the current much-reduced level of violence could only be a ‘generational truce’ – and ‘at times, Northern Ireland…seems in danger of lurching back into the past.’
But nobody wants to seem to talk about that. We’re too busy blasting out needlessly cheery tourist board adverts urging people, desperately, to come here and sample the culture. It’s ‘Our Time,’ we’re told. It is insisted that the problems are solved and now everything’s fine – we must now ignore all the ugly problems we have and the uglier future it could create if neglected. We must now all desperately celebrate a ship that sunk in the name of tourism.
But ignoring all our problems or wishing them away isn’t going to solve them. Take a walk around any number of places in NI and after scratching the surface, you’ll see all the old problems remain.
I’m sure I’ll get told that I’m just being pessimistic, unhelpful, and that it’s all in hand, and will get better over time. But this is hard to take when just so little is being done to turn a true post-conflict society into a reality.
And that’s where our leaders come in.
Let’s be clear. The problem isn’t with the people. (One fact from the report: (80% of respondents indicated a preference to live in a mixed-religion neighbourhood). The problem is the politicians. Since 1998, we’ve had a stopping and starting peace process. The Assembly was suspended for a large part of the last decade. The peace process had to be resuscitated in 2007 by the British and Irish governments coercing the parties into agreeing. They have had to be dragged along.
From our politicians, there is no all-encompassing strategy, no plan, to bring about a true post-conflict society (You could argue that some political parties in the Assembly do well off division, and hence no appetite exists). In most parts of the democratic world, this is where the political opposition will get their teeth stuck in to the government, and blast them for their lack of strategy for bringing about reconciliation.
Such an opposition would have more ammunition that it could ever use. Children educated apart. Continuing, occasional spasms of sectarian violence. The ongoing threat of paramilitarism. Still no solution for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
But an ‘official’ opposition does not exist, as 103 out of 108 MLAs in the Assembly are in government. The media seems to turn a blind eye to the abuse of the ‘petition of concern,’ an Assembly mechanism designed to prevent the passage of legislation that would disadvantage one community over another. The petition of concern has been used to block environmental legislation, prevent a legitimate censure of a Minister and worthy reforms to local government. With a perpetual coalition system, the threat of being voted out of office simply does not exist.
Yes ,a consociational power-sharing form of government is / was necessary to run a democracy in a deeply divided society… but as we try to move forward, we find ourselves bound up in the very processes that were designed to stop us sinking back into the past. And last week, the Ulster Unionist Party, facing a choice between a candidate who pledged to take the party out of the Executive to form an opposition, and a candidate who made much more apprehensive noises about the concept, elected the latter with 81% of the vote. There seems to be no appetite just yet for proper democracy here from the parties.
To paraphrase John Lowry of the Worker’s Party: “The peace process is over. Now we need the democratic process.” Northern Ireland needs to sober up, think seriously about how it’s not the golden days just yet, and realise we haven’t come anywhere near as far as we’d like to think. We need to recapture 1998’s determination to change our society, because that battle hasn’t been won yet. We need to re-engage the approximately one hundred and fifty thousand voters who came out to vote for the Agreement, but then never voted again.
This is serious stuff. Once we’re on the way to addressing the emotional divisions, the physical barriers, the educational and social division and the legacy of the past, then we can run all the hyper, inane, stupid ‘our time’ adverts we like.