Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Agreement failed to repair our deeply divided society

The Good Friday Agreement signing.
The Good Friday Agreement signing.

Whatever the Agreement's deficiencies, few can deny that in Northern Ireland life changed for the better after April 10, 1998. In virtually every corner of this land, people rested easier in their beds and experienced a calmer atmosphere of relative normality.

Good Friday 1998 was a raw icy day. I recall driving up to Stormont that evening to be interviewed by Christiane Amanpour for CNN. The big wheels of world journalism and broadcasting were in town to report that Northern Ireland had found an historic peace. Famous foreign correspondents such as Amanpour huddled under a line of white canvas awnings erected across the lawns of Stormont, with a floodlit Parliament Buildings as their backdrop.

As I looked around, some of the politicians who had been at the heart of the negotiations were talking to the cameras of foreign broadcasting companies. I remember thinking of how many times I had been interviewed over the previous three decades about so many horrendous events and political failures and now I was standing in front of Stormont with a sense of pride explaining how the promise of peace could replace all the violence of the past.

That was then and now is now. What would I say, 15 years on, if Christiane Amanpour returned to ask me the same questions about the future of Northern Ireland and the impact of the Good Friday Agreement in 2013?

Firstly, I would say the contribution of peace in the past 15 years cannot be quantified because it is so vast in social, economic, security and political terms. We will never know how many people have been spared acts of terrorism, their businesses destroyed, their lives left in ruins, as was the case with tens of thousands of people before Good Friday 1998.

However, any reflections on how the politics of Northern Ireland has operated since then should be couched with criticism and concern. The reality is that instead of working towards the kind of compromise the agreement envisaged, the electorate has consistently voted for parties least likely to provide it.

Eight parties subscribed to the Good Friday Agreement. The major one that didn't, the DUP, now holds the balance of power. Peter Robinson was standing outside the gates of Stormont in protest in April 1998. Today he is First Minister because his party is perceived by a majority of unionists as having the backbone to ensure that their sense of Britishness will be protected, the Union will be preserved and the advances of Irish nationalists and republicans will be resisted and limited.

On the nationalist side, a majority of voters have forsaken the middle-ground showing they have more confidence in Sinn Fein to satisfy their aspirations for equality of citizenship and eventual Irish unity.

We can see clearly that the Good Friday Agreement was not the endgame. It has proved a licence for unionists and nationalists to joust for position over the last 15 years. Its greatest flaw is that it was accepted as a final deal by one side and only the beginning of a process by the other. As a consequence, unionists and nationalists have voted for politicians whose views are furthest apart.

And as years pass, we have now arrived at a unique political equilibrium between two traditions, one constantly pushing, the other elected to resist. Even more worrying, terror has not gone away totally. The daily news is punctuated with reports of dissident activity. The recent flag protests opened up old sores.

Too much of the past 15 years has been spent jockeying for position between unionist and nationalist interests and aspirations, and not enough on the simple task of decisively governing this small neck of the woods on the periphery of Europe. At least, Stormont's Orange and Green rainbow coalition has survived.

The Good Friday Agreement will be heralded around the world this week as an example of how compromise can be achieved between warring factions. The reality is somewhat different here. While it is true that politics has largely replaced conflict, the deep divisions of Northern Ireland are seemingly as intractable as ever.

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