Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood: Let's get back to making Agreement work and stop writing its obituary

A teenage Colum Eastwood campaigned for a 'Yes' vote. Now on its 20th anniversary, the SDLP leader wants to hear 'Yes' again

The SDLP believes agreement can be reached once again
The SDLP believes agreement can be reached once again

The Good Friday Agreement was my very first campaign. I was only 14 at the time, but I can still vividly remember the tangible sense of hope and expectation on the streets of Derry and throughout Northern Ireland. Alongside that enthusiasm and energy though, there was another very real sensation - a sense of relief.

Even as a teenager that huge emotional shift across this society was evident. It was as if, after 30 years of awful violence and hurt, the layers of tension and the constant fear began to gently melt away.

The referendum campaign marked an end to that narrowness and claustrophobia. It threw open our windows to a wider world, allowed fresh air to flow in and gave our communities the chance to breathe again.

The image that has probably imprinted its way into our collective history shows the famous concert where U2's Bono raised the hands of John Hume and David Trimble aloft.

However, that memory shouldn't entirely overshadow the less glamorous images of long hours of canvassing and leaflet drops.

It is important to remember that the overwhelming 'Yes' result wasn't just the work of individual political parties or governments. For perhaps the first time, civic society mobilised for the campaign and made its voice heard.

For me personally - as one of the many volunteers in the SDLP's campaign for 'Yes' - I was very conscious that I was walking alongside the architects and the builders of this Agreement.

Going in and out of Hume's office every day, I was part of a team for whom this referendum campaign of a few short weeks was the product of years of work, thought and hardship.

Even back then I had the clear sense that this campaign was a lifetime's work for these men and women - Hume, Mallon, Durkan and Rodgers.

This referendum was more important to them than any individual election for the party.

To them securing peace and securing a strong 'Yes' vote mattered much, much more. John Hume had imagined these institutions as far back as the 1960s and had invested all of his body and mind to its cause.

The dogged dream he held on to for all those difficult years was finally being placed before the people of Ireland, north and south.

I do remember being confident of the outcome, in spite of the noise of Ian Paisley and Bob McCartney preaching the past on the margins.

On referendum day, the massive support received across the island was a true vindication of the work and effort of decades before. It was truly deserved.

The memories of that time obviously stand in deep contrast with our current political failure.

The Good Friday Agreement is now under a severe and sustained threat.

Unfortunately, there is no hint of exaggeration in that statement. In the undergrowth of this week's 20th anniversary commemorations, there are plenty running to write its obituary.

Brexit, multiple scandals at the heart of the Executive and an inability to embrace the partnership spirit of 1998, have brought us to this precarious place.

As we all know, for well over a year now, politics here in Northern Ireland has been locked in a cycle of frustration and failure.

It would be wrong though to give up hope, because history tells us that cycles are there to be broken.

We know this because 20 years ago, it was the Good Friday Agreement itself which broke the cycle of conflict which had cast a shadow upon the Irish and British relationship for 800 years.

The enormity of that achievement is still felt with the absence of violence and in the many lives saved.

So rather than writing obituaries, now is the moment to review and renew.

A review and renewal mechanism was built in to the Agreement and I believe now is the right time to trigger it.

That review and renewal would seek to get our politics back on track following a year of failure.

It would seek to show that the narrow issues that we now contend with are very minor compared with the broadness of progress and possibility which was mapped out for us in 1998.

It could provide a roadmap for the restoration of the Executive and finally provide the North with a voice and answers to the looming Brexit threat.

The review wouldn't be about pulling the Agreement apart, it would instead be about getting back to it.

Previous negotiations have lessened the vision and principles of the 1998 Agreement.

This is a time to enhance it. For instance, a review and renewal should reverse the flawed changes of subsequent agreements, particularly at St Andrews, which have been resulted in a deep polarisation of our politics.

As guarantors, this process must be led by the Irish and British governments and involve all the parties in Northern Ireland.

As change engulfs the islands of Britain and Ireland following the Brexit result, the three strands of relationships at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement haven't dated, they have truly come of age.

Its structure and spirit of power-sharing, partnership and cooperation across our islands is still the pathway to progress and reconciliation in Ireland.

If Good Friday 20 years ago was to be the final destination of slow learners - let us not allow it to fall victim to fast wreckers.

Now is not the moment to give up on that Agreement - it's the moment to fully embrace it.

We shouldn't lose sight that the choice for all of us on this island remains the same.

The Irish and British peoples across this island can retreat from each other or we can again choose to work, live and govern together. It is not just the best solution for our broken politics, it remains the only solution.

This week can't simply be about commemorating the Good Friday Agreement - it must also be about getting back to it.

Belfast Telegraph


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