Belfast Telegraph

Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement and I've lost every bit of optimism

As the anniversary looms, Fionola Meredith looks back and asks where that powerful spirit of hope we once had has gone

The sense of hope and reconciliation which saw Bono laud peacemakers David Trimble (left) and John Hume (right) has long since been replaced by cynicism and anger
The sense of hope and reconciliation which saw Bono laud peacemakers David Trimble (left) and John Hume (right) has long since been replaced by cynicism and anger

My daughter is almost exactly the same age as the Good Friday Agreement. It's hard to believe it's nearly 20 years ago. It feels like yesterday and at the same time it feels like a lifetime.

Barely two weeks after that extraordinary deal was done, she took her first breaths in what suddenly seemed to be a radically different world.

She was less than a month old when I voted in the referendum on the Agreement. I took my tiny girl with me to the polling station, strapped to my chest in a baby sling. She was asleep the entire time, even the protesters at the gate shrieking anti-Agreement slogans didn't wake her, but it seemed important that she was there. This was about her, after all.

Inside the voting booth, I noticed a scrap of paper on which somebody had scrawled a note in pencil. "For your children's sake, please vote yes," it said.

I could imagine the other young mother who might have left that nameless plea. But I didn't need the encouragement. I walked in there determined to say yes. I had no doubt I was doing the right thing.

Yes to a bright peaceful future for our children.

Yes to possibility and purpose, and a chance to see what this sad, wounded country could make of itself once people weren't killing each other any more.

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Yes to a generation growing up free from the fear and dread and horror that we knew so well. To listen to the local news without hearing a daily litany of death. To go shopping without having your bag checked for incendiary devices. To be able to walk past an empty car, parked in an odd place with its hazard warning lights on, and not immediately think 'bomb'. (I still do that - it must be hardwired into my nervous system.)

There really was something new and different in the air back then. Maybe it was the postpartum hormones, but I could be reduced to tears by Van Morrison singing Days Like This. Even that embarrassing stunt that Bono organised when David Trimble and John Hume walked across the stage in their shirtsleeves looking all awkward and sheepish and proud of themselves. It was cringeworthy, but you felt like cheering all the same.

Do you remember what that sort of hope felt like?

I don't. It's gone. I'm not 24 years old any more and I've had almost every rising flutter of optimism kicked out of me by two decades of sectarian brinkmanship and sheer bloody intransigence. That hoped-for era of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding? It failed to materialise. The politicians played hard and fast with our dreams and we all lost.

Look at us now. Stumbling towards oblivion - health screwed, education screwed, roads undriveable with pot-holes and a harsh Brexit imminent - while our leaders, the ones we elected, indulge themselves with their latest infantile bout of tribal posturing.

Please spare me the over-egged analysis and breathless, self-important speculation about what the deal might have been and why it didn't work and where we're going next. We don't have the luxury of that sort of endless chin-stroking, as though politics was some kind of strategic parlour-game that has no bearing on reality. I have never been so alienated and sickened by our politics as I am today.

In 1998, giddy relief that the war was - sort of - over blinded us to the inevitable consequences: that once local politicians seized power they would shamelessly manipulate it to their own ideological ends, constantly trading on our gratitude that the Troubles were finished.

So it's no wonder Bill and Hillary Clinton are reportedly now thinking twice about coming back to Northern Ireland to mark and celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Bill was supposed to receive the Freedom of Belfast, alongside George Mitchell, while Hill was to receive an honorary doctorate from Queen's University.

But they will hardly return to preside over the mangled, barely salvageable wreckage of that hard-won accommodation. (Sure, Tony Blair will probably still turn up with his mad-eyed, messianic grin but even he might find it difficult to keep smiling in the current dire circumstances.)

And even if Michelle and Arlene somehow do get power-sharing up and flying again, on half a wing and a spluttering engine, it's only a matter of time before it crashes and burns in another ditch, maybe this time for good.

Despite everything, the last 20 years have seen great change. Everyday life today is nothing like the twilit half-life we endured during the Troubles.

We have emerged, blinking, into the 21st century.

So why does it feel like the clock is going backwards?

Belfast Telegraph


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