Twenty five years of Northern Ireland’s imperfect peace

I am sure I was not the only one to find this scene (from Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls) to be particularly poignant. This week marks 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I was a student living in Scotland at the time. My memories of April 1998 primarily revolve around the television coverage of the negotiations at Castle Buildings in Belfast. There are too many to mention here but a few stand out. UK Prime Minister’s (in)famous ‘hand of history’ comment after he earnestly told reporters that this was no time for soundbites. Cameras capturing Brid Rodgers hugging SDLP colleagues in the party’s offices in the early hours of the 10 April, signalling that an Agreement had been reached.  And of course there was the televised plenary session on 10 April when US Senator George Mitchell announced an agreement had been reached. The rectangular table with the leaders of the main political parties sitting side-by-side (each with their own name card, as if we needed reminding who they were). 

The conversation between Erin and Granda Joe captures the optimism and fear of those who voted in the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998. Like many others, I voted via post and my knowledge of the deal was based entirely on information made available to the public via traditional media. There were no ‘hot takes’ on sites like Twitter informing voters about its contents (perhaps a good thing!). Dial-up internet meant that copies of the text could not be circulated freely online. My dad ended up photocopying the entire document and sending it to me in the post (writing on the first page “some light reading for you”, which still makes me laugh when I see it). In the end, it was an easy decision to vote ‘Yes’. The commitment of paramilitaries to abandon their campaigns of political violence in favour of exclusively peaceful means would mean that future generations would not have to experience the trauma and losses of the past.

Fast forward 25 years and the anniversary of the GFA sees Northern Ireland very much at a crossroads. Admittedly ambitious targets to remove all peace walls by 2023 have not been met, albeit they are dwindling slowlyParamilitary-style attacks continue to blight what remains a deeply divided society. The continued threat from violent dissident republican groups was illustrated by the attempted murder of PSNI Detective John Caldwell last month. Democratic dysfunction remains a defining feature of the powersharing institutions created under the Agreement. The consociationalist framework of governance means that either of the two largest political parties have the ability to collapse the institutions when it is politically expedient for them to do so. Most recently, the Democratic Unionist Party has boycotted Stormont in protest at the ‘Irish Sea Border’ created by the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement. Despite claims from UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that the Windsor Framework will make the region the “world’s most exciting economic zone”, it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to convince the DUP to go back into government. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has argued that the real issue is that they do not want to serve under a nationalist First Minister, a likely scenario given that Sinn Féin are now the largest party in the Assembly.

While it may be imperfect, perhaps even unpalatable for some, these are grounds for optimism. The structures that kept the main communities apart are slowly being dismantled. Research shows an increase in the number of mixed relationships and people who self-identify as neither unionist or nationalist. Activism in areas such as women’s reproductive rights continues to transcend sectarian boundaries. A clear majority of Catholic and Protestant residents living in the vicinity of peace walls want them to come down.  Moreover, there are the number of lives saved due to the end of the conflict. Former Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams recently argued there are thousands of people alive today because of the GFA.  Now, more than ever, we need political leaders with the bravery of the class of 1998 to protect their hard-won peace.

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