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Ivan Yates: Sadly, this is a place where hope and history no longer rhyme

Special time: from left, David Trimble, Bono and John Hume promoting the Good Friday Agreement in 1998
Special time: from left, David Trimble, Bono and John Hume promoting the Good Friday Agreement in 1998

By Ivan Yates

Rory McIlroy, after his disappointing final round at Augusta last Sunday, could take few positives from his failure to complete a golfing Grand Slam of the Majors. His putter let him down once again.

He was only eight when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed in 1998. He would be perfect as an envoy for a new generation representing an agreed Northern Ireland.

The face of a new dispensation of cross-community harmony.

Golf became an Olympic sport for the Rio 2016 games. Back then Rory was torn between representing Team Ireland or Team GB. The Golfing Union of Ireland is an all-island structure.

He had represented Ireland as an amateur and participated on the Irish team in the World Cups of 2009 and 2011. Rory chose Team Ireland.

But such was the mood of divisiveness, he ended up opting out entirely - citing the risks associated with the zika virus. So no positives there.

Just another classic example of how Northern politics can't get beyond its collective identity crisis. The overall gains for the community seldom figure.

Views get skewed and a victory for one side is seen to inflict a loss on the other.

So 20 years on from the GFA, the original peacemakers resembled a nostalgic old boys' reunion, airbrushing out the ever present realities of bigotry and intolerance.

Hopes for political progress have been betrayed by a new generation of politicians stuck in a time warp. The chance of narrow party gains win out over the prospect of cross-party co-operation every time.

Two-thirds of voters in Northern Ireland elect representatives from the DUP or Sinn Fein. Ulster saying 'No' in both nationalism and unionism is popular.

The middle ground of internal politics has been hollowed out. There is no one to play the roles of John Hume, Ken Maginnis or Lord Alderdice on the current political stage.

The SDLP is on the verge of extinction, and its survival could depend on some melding into Fianna Fail. Robin Swann, the UUP leader, is hardly a household name.

The electorate's preferences reflect the depth of failure towards modern pluralist transformation.

A sectarian society is reflected across every facet of daily life. The peace walls have grown thicker and longer - well beyond the Shankill and Falls Road.

Some 93% of children are educated in religious denominated schools. And 97% of council housing estates are ghettoised as Protestant or Catholic.

Two more decades of deep-rooted bitterness.

The external statesmanship that made 1998 unique will hardly be repeated. Two treble-term prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, prepared to commit all to Belfast. From across the Atlantic US president Bill Clinton and special envoy senator George Mitchell also cleared their diaries to make this top priority diplomacy.

Today? After all that special attention and herculean effort we are left with minority administrations in Dublin and London, with minimal authority.

While on Capitol Hill there sits a Potus with scant interest in Ireland. The Northern parties can forget about getting such intensive wet-nursing again.

The GFA was the most monumental in a series of milestone events: Sunningdale 1974; Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985; Downing Street declaration 1993; IRA ceasefire 1997; St Andrews Agreement 2006; Hillsborough Agreement 2010; Stormont House Agreement 2014. There's a perceptible historic trend which the GFA denotes.

The British for the first time acknowledged they were prepared to relinquish sovereignty of Northern Ireland if a majority in the six counties voted for constitutional change. Similarly, the Republic of Ireland relinquished its territorial constitutional claim through Articles Two and Three on unity, conditional on consent being given within Northern Ireland.

The loosening of ancient aspirations of sovereignty was historic.

Then along comes the out-of-control Brexit juggernaut. It poses catastrophic consequences for Northern Ireland.

It is in the line of fire to suffer the greatest collateral damage from the schism between Europe, Britain and Ireland. A forecast of 12% GDP reduction amounts to severe recession.

Threats of diminished trade, investment and fiscal transfers should've provided the impetus for cross-community unified consolidation. Coming together to ensure Northern Ireland didn't become an orphan in a bitter cold war waged between Brussels, London and Dublin.

Espousing a special economic zone exclusively in the EU and the UK would benefit all enormously.

But once again, nationalist and unionist tribes prefer to renounce reconciliation.

The DUP embraces the Britishness of Brexit, knowing it might re-establish the 500km border with the south with customs barriers.

Sinn Fein jettisoned power-sharing, favouring the pursuit of a border poll within five years.

SF peddles its green agenda, denouncing Northern Ireland as a failed state entity, not to be propped up - as it would now be out of the EU. This is another zero sum game.

The GFA is an undoubted success story as a peace process. Violence has stopped. But it's been a stuttering stop-start failure as a political process.

Strand one of the devolved government has been effectively blocked by Sinn Fein, while Strands two and three have been opposed from the get-go by the DUP.

Without a conventional assembly electing a conventional coalition government/opposition, a de facto veto has been exercised by both SF/DUP.

This week we saw not hope and history rhyming, rather hypocrisy and history.

Grandee authors of the Good Friday Agreement have funked the opportunity to exercise moral authority or expend political capital from 20 years ago.

Backslapping and self-congratulation was an abysmal antidote in the face of political paralysis. A legacy of Stormont stalemate and poisonous Brexit divisions is nothing to celebrate.

The only stalwart to step up to the plate was Seamus Mallon. Typically blunt, he vented genuine anger and deep personal sadness that the political architecture of 1998 has been "debased and diminished".

He bluntly called out the "political silos" and "Balkanisation" of Northern Ireland.

Both the Dublin and London governments, and the peoples of the Republic/UK, should double down on Mr Mallon's admirable about-turn on the cosy consensus of this week's glib commemorations.

Northern Ireland remains a sectarian society imprisoned by its past. It should be obliged to develop a cohesive identity that Rory might proudly embrace.

It's time for tough love. We shouldn't be giving any succour to DUP/SF intransigence on the Assembly or executive government. Salaries and allowances to MLAs should cease.

The vanity parade in Belfast missed a once off opportunity to out, even shame, the DUP/SF's abuse of the Good Friday Agreement.

Belfast Telegraph


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