Belfast Telegraph

Agreement did bring hope, but politics in Northern Ireland has reverted to type

By John Downing

The killing has stopped and, by and large, stayed stopped - that is one undoubted mercy.

The various low-key events over recent days, marking 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, have told us that people across Northern Ireland will not tolerate a return to the awfulness of murder and mayhem we euphemistically called the Troubles.

But, since peace must very definitely be something more than the absence of war, we really cannot celebrate this anniversary.

Anyone old enough to be around in that spring of 1998, recalling the hopes for real change and a transformation of relations on these islands, would not have the heart to celebrate.

It is just as well there was no agreed commemoration date for the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

It has variously been marked last weekend by some people, while others have held off for the actual date, April 10, which falls on Tuesday. But it is important to use this commemoration as a stock-take.

The machine arising from the agreement has been up on blocks longer than it has ever been on the road. It has been abused and ignored, and Brexiteers have posed a new and real threat to the very existence of the deal.

Given that the power-sharing structures have been lying idle for almost 15 months, it has begun to look vulnerable.

So, is it time to re-think the Good Friday Agreement? Well, firstly it's worth briefly recalling where we were in 1998 and what benefits all the various parties got from it.

All sides got a promised end to violence, which was not entirely definitive, but transpired.

The unionist side got an end to unsatisfactory aspects of direct rule from London which had continued for two decades.

They also got a promised end to the Irish Republic's constitutional claim of sovereignty over the six northern counties, which was promptly delivered. It would be replaced by a recognition that the Northern Ireland's status could not be changed without the consent of its people.

This, however fictional, was a major bugbear since the 1920s, stoked up by Eamon de Valera's 1937 Constitution and the declaration of a Republic in 1949.

But these shaky gains for David Trimble's UUP took place in the absence of the DUP from the entire process.

The SDLP gained a huge foothold in the government in Northern Ireland for the first time since its foundation, bar the brief and ill-starred power-sharing experiment in the mid-1970s. It was the SDLP's finest moment and zenith after which, as it turned out, the only way was down.

The position of Sinn Fein was characteristically ambiguous and mirrored to some extent that of the DUP.

Sinn Fein's gain was that it had gone from political and paramilitary agitator to having potential government ministers with a seat on the north-south bodies.

Mention of north-south bodies reminds us the Good Friday Agreement is fundamentally an international treaty negotiated between Dublin and London.

While the north-south element has been a big disappointment, the east-west element, in other words building better relations between Britain and Ireland, has been a win.

The unfinished business in the Good Friday Agreement proved to be a huge bugbear.

The IRA's weapons were not definitively decommissioned, paramilitary prisoners were being released amid lingering doubts. This allowed the DUP to stay outside a process which was very slow to get up and running. It used that time to fatally undermine the UUP.

In a similar way Sinn Fein, though far less blatantly than the DUP, remained semi-detached from the process. It also continued to gain ground on the SDLP which faced other internal organisational challenge.

By the time the flaws and gaps were addressed in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, we had the established supremacy of the DUP and Sinn Fein leading each side of the Northern Ireland's divided communities. It saw power-sharing restored the following summer and effectively gave us the most unlikely political pairing of the 'Chuckle Brothers' which lined up Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The character and personal chemistry between these two did finally appear to launch something real in Northern Ireland. It persisted when Ian Paisley retired in favour of Peter Robinson in summer 2008. The DUP-SF led power-sharing executive persisted for almost 10 years until late 2017.

By then Arlene Foster had taken over the DUP leadership and the seriously ill Martin McGuinness was about to retire from politics.

The DUP was mired in a series of big scandals which led Sinn Fein to argue the power-sharing was no longer tenable. Since then the ground has shifted. We have had two elections, one to Stormont and one to Westminster, which have further eroded the middle ground.

Northern Ireland politics has reverted to type. Two political tribes glower at one another. Hard compromises are anathema to both.

So, the 20th anniversary is a good opportunity to take real stock of the Good Friday Agreement, acknowledge its successes and build upon some of its strengths.

That also means looking again at some of its flaws, especially in how power-sharing does not work so well for any acceptable length of time.

But that can't happen until Britain resolves the Brexit mess in which it landed itself.

John Downing is the political correspondent at the Irish Independent

Belfast Telegraph

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