Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Peace deal a success but hard work still to be done

The Good Friday Agreement is as significant today as it was when it was signed 11 years ago, argues Professor Colin Harvey

Why does a public defence of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and the principles which underpin it, remain necessary?

Does it spring from a backward-looking, even conservative, mindset? Might it not be time to sketch the outlines of an alternative future, one less obsessed about past agreements and their implementation?

There are several responses. The legal imperative is the most glaring.

We are talking about principles negotiated over decades which have gained international and national legal recognition and status in Ireland and the UK.

Simply stating that 'it is the law' should not end the conversation, if only because the interpretative room within the terms of the law is considerable.

Politically, the agreement was endorsed in referenda North and South. 'The people' had their say and appeared to like what they read.

The political implications of that constitutional moment are prone to neglect and merit further consideration in an Irish and British context.

While not all the now-dominant political parties were present, the main traditions were - all underwritten by both governments and considerable international support.

Perhaps the most persuasive and attractive reason for continuing emphasis is values-based; we forget the radical heart beating within that document. More than 11 years later those values still stand in judgment on the current arrangements.

The year 1998 was a transformative constitutional moment in the history of this island and for relations between these islands.

Remarkable progress has been made in places. However, other less-pleasing conclusions should be acknowledged.

Sufficient progress has not been made on implementing the 'values' which permeate the document; on rights, equality, reconciliation and social justice. The centrality of rights, equality and reconciliation is continually trumpeted as vital to our 'new dispensation'.

Disturbingly, there is still much to do. This is not to promote an unhealthy obsession with one particular agreement; it is about keeping in view the constitutional promises held up in more optimistic times.

Agreements and institutions exist for social and political purposes and are not ends in themselves.

The agreement placed in our minds the thought that transformation on this island might be a part of the transition in the North.

At heart that is a legacy issue, both in tackling the root causes of conflict and leaving to future generations a strong signal of our progressive social and political intentions.

We are getting used to being cited as an example to the world; the entrepreneurial spirit reflected in attempts to make 'the peace process' our principal export.

Yet we still cannot agree among ourselves what all the real lessons might be and there is much to discover about our collective past.

The discomfort felt should not spring solely from lack of consensus on what the lessons are; we have also not fulfilled several of those constitutional promises and some continue to pretend that a complex, difficult and fluid process can be reduced to all the stale rigidity of an incomplete jigsaw.

Like any profound constitutional enterprise, the implications evolve over time, the point being to continue the conversation. Elements can be ticked off as complete; others will be work in progress.

The pressure to draw lines is understandable. The pleasure and relief from saying 'job done' should not be scorned.

The steady, grinding and long-term work of realising democratic values, protecting human rights, ensuring equality, advocating social justice, and encouraging reconciliation may well seem daunting. This is precisely why the significance of that moment in 1998 must be underlined again today.

The ideals have clung on in a process which at times risks losing its moral bearings.

The hard work of living up to these principles continues and the job is certainly not done.

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