Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Colum Eastwood: What happened to the optimism of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement?

SDLP MLA for Foyle says the 1998 Agreement remains the roadmap to a prosperous Northern Ireland

So what happened to the optimism of 1998?: Pictured - John Hume, Bono, David Trimble and Tim Wheeler
So what happened to the optimism of 1998?: Pictured - John Hume, Bono, David Trimble and Tim Wheeler

I was 14 years old in 1998. I was too young to vote, but old enough to be conscious that real political change was afoot.

Growing up in Derry I was well aware of the good work of John Hume and his personal efforts for peace. I saw him take the risks and bring in political opponents from the cold. Now with the Easter holidays approaching it seemed like things were finally changing for the better.

The excitement of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, led by US Senator George Mitchel, was impossible to ignore. There was an atmosphere of hope. Finally ordinary people had real ambitions for the future and for how politics here could be a force for positive change.

I was too young to vote for the Good Friday Agreement but I canvassed with the SDLP in support of it.  In the years that followed it was clear that society was transforming as a result. The challenges ahead seemed surmountable for the first time.

When I first cast my vote in 2001 in the Westminster and local elections I voted for the SDLP.  I did this because the SDLP were the ones who had taken the risks and provided the leadership in changing our politics.

The failure to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement led to disagreements and suspensions of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the early days.

While those disputes were resolved, the on-going inability of the two parties of Government to reach agreement on how to deal with our past has led to us once again seeking external help.

So what happened to the optimism of 1998? People who endorsed the Agreement have become weary with those who would seek to tear it up.  It remains our roadmap to a safe, secure and prosperous Northern Ireland.

The Haass talks must capture the promise of 1998 and deliver, however late, a long-term solution for all the people of this region.  I am conscious of those teenagers out there, who this time will be focused on their Christmas holidays. We cannot let them down.

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