Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long: We cannot afford to let the current impasse at Stormont deflect us from the path of reconciliation

Why, on this 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we need to recapture the vision of a shared, integrated and prosperous Northern Ireland at peace with itself

The 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was always going to be a time for reflection. That it comes at a time when the institutions it created are suspended and when relationships, not only between local parties but also between the UK and Irish Governments, are particularly strained makes honest reflection even more important.

Therefore, it would be easy to be dismissive of what the Agreement represents and of what it has achieved; a sense of disappointment, frustration - even anger - we have yet to realise its full potential and are placing it in jeopardy, would not only be understandable but justified.

However, it's important to remember despite the current setbacks just how far we have come as a community and the complete transformation we have witnessed across Northern Ireland as a result of it.

For my generation the Troubles were the backdrop to our entire growing up; we simply knew nothing else. The abnormal was our normal. For my parents the focus was on trying to shield us from the worst of what was happening, to give us the chance of a normal childhood. We lived smaller lives, constrained by the geography of fear.

The fragility of the normality we sought to construct, and the way in which the horror of the Troubles forced its way violently into our everyday lives, has rarely been captured as poignantly as it was in the last episode of Derry Girls.

As I watched the scene of the girls laughing and dancing without a care in the world, sharply contrasted against the adults at home, fear etched on their faces, gathering round the TV to watch breaking news of a bomb attack, I was reminded of how often the highs of life were interrupted by unimaginable horror unfolding on our screens and in our streets, accompanied by the sense of fear and dread of what would come next.

And yet, with the ceasefires in 1994, we glimpsed the first ray of hope in my lifetime that things might change.

The signing of the Agreement made that hope feel tangible. The overwhelming belief was we had crossed a Rubicon and things would never be the same again.

However, while the Agreement was good, it was not perfect. For Alliance, we recognised it was the best we could achieve at that time and a basis on which to build further progress.

It was not the end of the process, it was only a beginning. It offered opportunity, but even as it was signed Senator George Mitchell was explicit that much hard work lay ahead if we were to grasp that opportunity in full.

Its basic principles were sound and remain the only viable means to resolving our differences today: a commitment to peace and a culture of lawfulness; respect for the principle of consent; the importance of good relationships and power-sharing structures; the recognition of our interdependence with and between our nearest neighbours; and the emphasis on reconciliation, good relations, human rights and equality as means of transforming society.

However, the structures designed to compensate for lack of trust and to provide sufficient confidence and reassurance to communities still wary of each other's intentions were undeniably unwieldy and cumbersome.

The hope was, if operated with goodwill, they would eventually build the confidence and trust necessary to allow transition beyond their rigidity. The fear, expressed by Alliance at the time, was some of those mechanisms would copper-fasten our divisions rather than provide an incentive to overcome and move beyond them.

Rather than building confidence through structures which proactively encourage cross-community co-operation, the Agreement handed vetoes to parties via the petition of concern which have frustrated progress and resulted in an at times glacially slow pace of reform and change to make our health service, education, infrastructure and economy fit for purpose. The public and political frustration created by that kind of stop-start devoution and lack of delivery has slowly eroded the optimism and confidence so many had 20 years ago.

While the political process has settled into a 'two communities' mode of operation, clearly more comfortable with carving up resources and power than truly sharing them together, the effect of that has been stark.

Our society is more segregated than it was during the Troubles and the number of so-called peace walls has increased since 1998 rather than decreased.

The work of transforming society, of peace-building, of the promotion of shared housing and integrated education has at best been ignored by most political parties or at worst actively frustrated by them, with voluntary and community groups left to do the heavy lifting of reconciliation.

Though paramilitary attacks have decreased in number, the stranglehold which many still exert over communities remains a major challenge.

On the most sensitive of issues - dealing with the legacy of the past and addressing the needs of victims and survivors - the inability of parties to find agreement and the willingness of some to weaponise the hurt has delivered little for either victims or the wider community.

Brexit has created further challenges, with tensions clear between the two Governments over the border in increasingly sharp focus at a time when NI has no clear voice in the discussions and no mechanism to prepare for what is ahead.

Yet, while all of those problems could cause people to say the Good Friday Agreement has failed, it still has the solutions to so many of our current challenges and is the key to resolving our difficulties, past and present.

I see the enormity of the divisions overcome then to reach that Agreement, and it encourages me that our current relatively small differences can also be overcome.

I see the hope, optimism and sense of possibility surrounding its signing and recognise we so desperately need to reconnect with that 20 years on.

I see a Northern Ireland which, for all of the challenges we have faced and despite the many missed opportunities, is immeasurably better and almost unrecognisable from the one in which I grew up.

At our recent Alliance conference Hannah Irwin, a party member who was born the same year as the Agreement, spoke passionately of the need to finish its work.

Her generation have not lived my experience - their normal has been peace. The lives they have lived have been bigger, less constrained by the geography of fear. For Hannah, and for all the others like her, we have a duty to deliver fully on the promise of the Agreeent. We owe it to her generation and future ones to do so.

So, 20 years on, let's return to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement; reform the structures for our current needs; restore sustainable political institutions; and most of all recapture the vision of a shared, integrated and prosperous NI at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Hannah and her generation deserve no less.

Naomi Long is leader of the Alliance Party

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