Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: The Good Friday accord gave preference to the Irish-Gaelic tradition over others

The Agreement was flawed and has given way to a culture war being pursued by republicans

The sun didn't really shine on the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, either literally or metaphorically. On the eve of the anniversary Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors voted to retain the name of an IRA gunman on a children's play park in Newry and on the evening of the anniversary there was a gun attack in north Belfast.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein attempted to explain away what Gerry Adams had said about the "legitimacy" of violence, even as he was hobnobbing with the other 'peacemakers'. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton flew in for the anniversary but they are men with tarnished reputations.

The truth is that whilst the guns may be largely silent, we have not seen the emergence of the 'shared and better' society that many of us desire. Instead the 'long war' of Irish republicanism has moved on to new battlefields and has opened up new fronts.

Twenty years ago I voted against the Belfast Agreement because it was deeply flawed. Some of those flaws were 'big ticket' issues. Others were less blatant and immediate but after 20 years we can see the outworking of the flaws.

The current political impasse came when Sinn Fein collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly over their demand for an Irish Language Act. This highlights the fact that 'culture is upstream from politics' and that Sinn Fein has been running a 'culture war'.

Back in 1995, three years before the Belfast Agreement, Professor Arthur Aughey wrote the pamphlet Irish Kulturkampf and in November 1999, the year after the Belfast Agreement, Professor Edna Longley used the same term for the title of a paper she gave to the Irish Association.

She started that paper with this advice: "More attention should be paid to the cultural dimension of the 'peace process'.

"The 30-years war over Northern Ireland cannot be separated from a longer-term Irish Kulturkampf or culture-war.

"The culture-war has been ugly too."

Unfortunately the Belfast Agreement contributed negatively to that culture-war.

In a section on 'Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity' it made a series of eight specific commitments to the Irish language, as demanded by Sinn Fein, with not a single commitment to any other cultural tradition. Yes, it was in a section about 'equality' but eight to nil is not equality.

The Belfast Agreement created a preferential position for Irish-Gaelic culture and embedded it in law and in practice.

As a result, good practice and good relations were cast aside at the behest of Sinn Fein.

Today another Sinn Fein demand, for an Irish Language Act, is at the heart of the impasse as Sinn Fein seek to build on the preferential commitments that they extracted 20 years ago.

We would do well to reflect on the words of Professor Longley that "more attention should be paid to the cultural dimension of the peace process" and that has to mean that we approach that cultural dimension in a holistic way. There are a number of cultural traditions here in Northern Ireland, of which Irish is one but only one, and that is where equity and equality must come into the conversation.

Another flaw in the Belfast Agreement was the imbalance in our relationships north-south and east-west. I have to concede that some north-south bodies may well be rather less exciting than others and I can recall sitting at North-South Ministerial Council meetings where we had lengthy explanations about the mollusc population of Carlingford Lough.

However, the fact remains that there are north-south bodies and not all of them are so benign. The creation of Tourism Ireland certainly diminished the ability of Northern Ireland to market itself internationally as anything other than a part of 'Ireland'.

On the other hand the British-Irish Council lacks the structure of the north-south bodies and in truth seems to have been a fig-leaf for unionist negotiators to help them concede the north-south arrangements.

It could have been something of real value but sadly the opportunity was lost.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the authors of the Belfast Agreement made some bad mistakes and we are living with that legacy.

Belfast Telegraph

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