Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Now is the time to grasp the nettle

To re-energise and recommit to the Belfast Agreement will take courage. But the rewards could be enormous, says Ruairi O'Kane

The soundtrack to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement talked about record unemployment, lower pay and asked what ever happened to unity?

In addition, the hip-hop hit It's Like That, which topped the Irish charts in April 1998, wasn't an original – it was a remix from a song written 15 years previously.

Draw your own political comparisons as our own process has had several re-releases since then.

Today, the DUP and Sinn Fein enjoy the electoral royalties from a song largely written by the SDLP and UUP, who are now reduced to backing vocals.

Meanwhile, the Northern Irish audience would appear to have tuned out completely, with a growing disconnect from central government.

This is a far cry from when the agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, north and south.

The out-workings of the new beginning promised by the concord have disappointed many. The agreement aspired for the creation of institutions which respected diversity, eroded prejudice and worked together for the substantial, common interest for all. Stalemate, log-jam and carve-up were never meant to be part of the narrative.

It is hard to argue with those who say the Good Friday Agreement no longer exists today in either spirit or letter. Some may legitimately ask: why should it?

It has undergone a few remixes of its own since its inception via Leeds Castle, St Andrews and Hillsborough and none has been as good as the original.

The first and deputy first ministers are selected, rather than elected, and government by mandate was dispensed with when it came to appointing a justice minister.

And not only has the political ground shifted; the economic foundations have collapsed.

Practically all of our schoolchildren today were born after the 1994 ceasefires. In spite of political advancements and commitments to integrated education, the majority of our young people continue to be educated apart.

Moreover, those leaving school face bleak employment prospects, with jobless rates at levels not seen since 1998.

For many, the peace dividends are few and far between. And while our political parties cannot be blamed for the financial downturn, those who frustrated and delayed the process must shoulder responsibility for squandering more favourable conditions.

The British and Irish governments, as co-guarantors of the agreement, have clearly taken their eye off the ball, too.

Having invested so much time and energy in getting the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, they seem to have forgotten this did not solve all our problems.

Recent disputes over policing, parades, flags and the judiciary demonstrate that careful and continued management from Dublin, London and, indeed, Washington is still required.

Ironically, as the agreement stalled in its early years and the institutions were suspended, civil change continued with great success, as witnessed by reforms in policing. And civic society could have a role again in advancing progress.

The recalibration of the Civic Forum – mothballed by the current Executive – could help to harness a collective and powerful voice for our region and realise the full promise of the agreement.

There are clearly individuals from both traditions, in business, in academia and in the community, who could meaningfully contribute to make powerful arguments on shared themes, such as cutting corporation tax, promoting integrated education and protecting against welfare reform.

If 1998 brought about the agreed Ireland envisaged by John Hume and, in the principle of consent, created security for unionists, then there is an onus on all interested parties to build the new Ireland in which all can prosper.

The signing of the agreement was a starting, not a finishing, point and we should now be beyond the end of the beginning of our new dispensation. Progress has been made, but its potential has not been fulfilled. We should stop regarding the mere fact of devolution, or the absence of violence, as a victory.

Instead, there is a real need to return to the true spirit of fairness, reconciliation and co-operation which made the agreement possible.

That requires the full implementation of the outstanding areas of the agreement, a meaningful strategy to bring about a shared society and comprehensive system of addressing the needs of victims.

Easier said than done. But the agreement was brought about by the collective will of individuals who put the needs of the people of this island before the selfish interest of their parties.

To re-energise, re-invigorate and recommit to the agreement requires courage and leadership, but could bring rewards.

The challenges facing our elected representatives are similar to those faced back in 1998: namely to grasp and shape our future in a spirit of shared respect.

Our present political leaders are of a vintage to remember what is required to complete a task of this magnitude in the past.

Sadly, some of them are still stuck there, while others are not good enough to be there. And, as usual, it is the public and civic society who are ahead of the game, frustrated by a political class which continues to send out analogue messages in a digital age.

In 2013, it is time to see some 4G politics. Otherwise, the risk is not a missed opportunity, but a lost generation.

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