Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

If this was the best on offer I would hate to see the worst

False hope: David Trimble and John Hume celebrate with Bono
False hope: David Trimble and John Hume celebrate with Bono

Exactly 14 days after the Good Friday Agreement, my daughter was born. This year, this month, she turns 15. And so does that longed-for settlement.

The agreement came freighted with wild, impossible hopes and with a sense of bitter loss for the wasted years and lives.

When the news came through, almost 18 hours after the midnight deadline had passed, it seemed like a miracle had happened. Someone even said they saw the clouds form the shape of a cross in the sky over Stormont.

The future, once seen as a poor, tottering, impoverished thing, condemned endlessly to re-enact the squalor of the past, suddenly flared with new possibility and purpose.

My memories of the agreement and the referendum that followed are fragmented by the intervening years.

I remember an embrace seen through a lighted window at Stormont; a young, vigorous-looking Gerry Adams with an exhausted Seamus Mallon falling asleep in the background; John Hume and David Trimble in their shirtsleeves on the stage of the Waterfront Hall, both sheepish and proud; the simple, poignant hope of Van Morrison's Days like This.

There was talk of building trust and leaps of faith and bright new dawns. Our old friend Bill Clinton came on television to say that "after a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace".

I looked down at the dark head of my tiny daughter, sleeping quietly in her cot, and I wanted that promise to come true for her.

I was naive. We all were. Euphoria, by its very nature, is a short-lived, largely irrational experience, fuelled by exhilaration and heightened emotion. Inevitably, it dissipates.

The cherry-blossom and confetti of that springtime, 15 years ago, have long since blown away. Now we have come to realise that, far from dissolving the old divisions, the carve-up at Stormont effectively maintains them in a strained, artificial embrace.

The hope of Easter 1998 led circuitously, but inexorably (in retrospect, the end-point was inherent from the start) to today's rickety, legislatively constipated Assembly, dominated by two political extremes.

It is better, of course, than the violent past. But it is far from the new era of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding that, at one time, seemed tantalisingly within our grasp.

Of course, the truth is that it was never within our grasp. Damaged and desperate after the years of violence and seduced by a pathetic sense of gratitude that the conflict was finally going to go away, we settled for much, much less than we deserved.

Looking back, I am amazed that I did not pause to question the long-term social, political and cultural implications of voting for the agreement. Perhaps I was dazed from too much breastfeeding and too little sleep.

Whatever the reason, on referendum day I marched down to the polling station, baby propped on my hip, ignored the noisy anti-agreement protesters outside and put a big fat cross in the place marked 'Yes'.

I was convinced I was doing the right thing. As far as I was concerned, only bigots and hardliners were voting against this settlement. And I didn't number myself among those.

In saying Yes, I unwittingly signed up to a future of blinkered illiberalism, where political and religious ideologues would shamelessly use and abuse their new-found power for their own twisted, crazy ends.

I signed up for a government with ministers who would deny rape victims an abortion; support the teaching of creationist beliefs as fact in classrooms and museums; ban gay men from donating blood.

I signed up for a government with ministers who see no problem appointing convicted bombers and murderers to school boards of governors, or special advisor roles, in shameful disregard for the lacerated hearts and minds of victims.

This is the extraordinarily high price we have paid for devolution. And those of us who voted for the agreement, those of us who set this whole circus of iniquities in motion in the first place, have only ourselves to blame.

It pains me to say it, but perhaps the suave, enlightened paternalism of Westminster would have been preferable.

Back in 1998, we were presented with a black or white choice. We could choose forwards or backwards, the future or the past, tomorrow or yesterday, peace or the dread possibility of a return to war. What else were we to say but yes, yes, I will, yes?

But it leaves us with a single, unanswered question: has it all been worth it?

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