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The Top Table's contributors on how the Good Friday Agreement has broken down barriers

Tonight, BBC NI's The Top Table, the show that puts young people at the centre of the debate, will focus on the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Here, two people taking part in the series share their personal thoughts about the deal

Host of The Top Table Stephen Nolan
Host of The Top Table Stephen Nolan
Eimear O'Keeffe
Thomas Copeland
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement in 1998
Talk time: Stephen Nolan and Peter Robinson on The Top Table

Eimear O'Keeffe (17) is chairperson of Belfast Youth Forum and Youth Advocate for Youth@CLC. She says:

I was born two and a half years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and I believe it affects me more than any other political agreement in recent history.

The Agreement established the political institutions for the north of Ireland, providing devolution and the chance of power sharing in a deeply divided society.

It is almost impossible for me to make comparisons between pre-1998 and now. Life after the signing of the GFA is my 'normal', it is all that I have known. Normality for anyone of my age is so different from that of the generation before me.

Without the GFA, I believe we would still be living in a society with paramilitary violence in the streets and listening to the news each night and morning, just as my parents did, wondering who was next to be killed, where the last shooting had happened, if there were any security alerts that would affect their day-to-day lives. Coming from a nationalist background, I was lucky that I was brought up in a fairly mixed area of north Belfast.

I was encouraged by my parents to keep up-to-date about current affairs and I watched the news with them every night.

My parents were not the type to tell me what I should or shouldn't think politically, but rather through my education and learning about politics in the north, I was able to learn about Ireland's past and make up my own mind. With media outlets and programmes like The Top Table I have been able to voice my own opinion.

I have also been able to explore social issues with groups such as the Belfast Youth Forum and NI Youth Forum. Without the GFA, I would not have the opportunity to do these things.

For example, the Equality Commission exists as a direct result of the GFA. This Commission provides protection against discrimination, helping ensure equal opportunity to everyone living in the six counties, regardless of religion, gender or sexuality, just to name a few examples.

Without the GFA, young people like myself would not get the same protection of laws and rights.

In some ways the GFA has enabled more young people to become involved in politics here, though there is much to be done to help ensure young people take up this opportunity. With powers devolved from the British Government to the local Assembly, young people have had the chance to be closer to political life, seeing how the institutions work. With decision-making brought to a more local level there is much greater opportunity for youth to actually influence the decision-makers - local representatives that they know, that they can approach and (I hope!) will listen.

Local representatives have the chance to make decisions that will affect people here - it is a two-way process. A youth assembly would, in my opinion, bring young people into even greater contact with the political process. Without the GFA, many more young people would be even more detached from the political process here, seeing it only as a remote activity on a television screen at Westminster, far away in London.

It is also extremely important to mention that the GFA removed the Army from the border and encouraged cross-border healthcare, trade and socialising. Free movement across this border is normal for me, but I am worried that Brexit threatens this. Without the GFA, so many people's lives, both young and old, would be completely different if the border was still covered in checkpoints.

As a 'young person' is defined as anyone under the age of 25, most young people today were born after the Troubles. Yet we still face the impacts of life in a post-conflict society.

The GFA gave young people the opportunity to grow up with those from other backgrounds, without the daily roll-call of incidents and checkpoints.

We have had lots of opportunities to get to know and understand each other's cultures and to finally move on from the North's troubled past. Without the GFA, I believe many youth would still be in an 'us and them' mindset, failing to see across the barricades.

To truly move forward, I believe that all politicians and decision-makers must make devolution work, while respecting the rights and integrity of all citizens living in the six counties.

Devolution is realistic and achievable, and young people from all parts of our society will have a part to play in this.

The Top Table, tonight on BBC One NI at 10.40pm, will feature key figures from the time of the signing of the Agreement, including Senator George Mitchell. An audience of 200 sixth form pupils from schools across Northern Ireland will be in the studio as a panel of young people aged 17-21 debate the peace process and the current political situation with leading politicians and commentators

Thomas Copeland (19) is a former pupil of Methodist College Belfast and co-founder of the blog, ChallengesNI. He says:

I was born in December 1998, just a few months after the Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly ratified by referenda across Ireland. Now, as I approach my twenties, I have read innumerable reflections, analyses and appraisals of an Agreement that has, without doubt, re-shaped the world in which I grew up.

Some of these sentiments have treaded with undue reverence, others with ignominy, and many treat the Agreement as if it is merely an artwork, to be critiqued and interpreted, but rarely to be viewed as a framework for change.

The Good Friday Agreement is certainly flawed. The last 20 years provide all too much evidence of that.

The petition of concern is vague and communal designation can breed division.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing and these criticisms are definitely valid.

However, I often wonder if I could have been so vocal about these pitfalls had I been around the table in 1998, trying desperately to secure some sort of future for my children and grandchildren.

The Agreement alone cannot and will not solve the malaise that afflicts Northern Ireland. Those who expect it to generate the answers to contemporary dilemmas will be digging for solutions for far longer than we can afford.

What the Agreement did provide, however, was something much more valuable than quick-fix resolutions to deep-seated problems. It gave the people of Northern Ireland the space we needed to forge our own future.

It gave us the tools, rather than the instruction manual, with which to build a society where every person can live, learn and grow together.

Progress, like anything worth having, is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain.

Even the most optimistic observer would admit that the "hand of history" certainly isn't guiding us now as we enter our 15th month of political stalemate.

For 20 years we have known how to achieve the future we desired, but we still live in a society where peace walls are commonplace and children who attend integrated schools are a social anomaly.

We still live in a world where paramilitary control masquerades as community safeguarding and where the victims of our history are begging just to get by.

We have been gifted the legislative mechanisms to tear down the barriers of our past, unshackle ourselves from the chains of sectarianism and right the wrongs of the past. The door to societal integration has been opened and we have failed to step through.

The Good Friday Agreement isn't dead because it was never alive. It was the people of Northern Ireland who have taken us this far. By calling out the faults of the Agreement we do not absolve ourselves from the responsibility of writing our own instruction manual. Resting on the laurels of a 20-year-old mediation will not create the future that I believe is possible.

I appeared on The Top Table on BBC NI last May, days before the General Election.

Despite that programme airing less than a year ago, political fatigue has rendered it a hazy recollection. Since then, many more young people have been given the chance to appear on the show.

The Good Friday Agreement shows its influence, not under the lights of a studio, but amongst the young people on the panel, and indeed the audience.

I have watched these panellists laughing, joking and becoming friends backstage, before taking their seats at The Top Table and enjoying a battle of political debate.

Notwithstanding this progress, I have also witnessed some hateful abuse plaguing social media, berating young panellists for either regurgitating the politics of their parents or abandoning their roots; for being too reactionary, or perhaps too progressive. It is disappointing that some would hide behind a keyboard and criticise young panellists on the show as if they were nothing more than one-dimensional caricatures who are so immature that their political beliefs characterise their entire existence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stephen Nolan's The Top Table show is giving young people the chance to engage, across a table rather than across a peace wall, in the debates which dominate their existence.

It is a huge privilege for me to now work on the show and play my part in offering hundreds of young people the chance to prove to the world that they are passionate, that they can present solutions and that they have a vision for Northern Ireland which is ambitious and inclusive.

Whatever the future might hold, unionism will not evaporate in a United Ireland, and nationalism will not be quelled in a province of the United Kingdom.

As ever, the journey is more important than the destination, and more important still is that we travel together.

Belfast Telegraph


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