A Legacy of Peace!

It may have escaped your attention but today (10 April 2018) is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). With the institutions the Agreement spawned currently mothballed now and for the foreseeable future, any sense of celebration or euphoria has been sensibly put on hold. No doubt, the powers-that-be hoped that this landmark would be an affirmation of stability and progress, a proclamation of enduring hope, but recent political events in Northern Ireland have underlined what a precarious and fragile business peacemaking undoubtedly is. Still, the unavoidable reality of the present political mess shouldn’t detract from the epochal achievement that is the GFA.

I remember the referendum and campaign like they were yesterday. Having not long secured the ability to vote, the whole event was rather novel and it was impossible not to be caught up in the sheer sense of occasion, the notion that something truly historic and unprecedented was happening. Mine wasn’t a generation that was especially political (unlike today when youngsters start online petitions about everything from protesting against wars to the price of their favourite tea) but not participating in the referendum wasn’t an option here. Most people I knew had serious misgivings about the GFA and its fundamental flaws but there was an impetus behind the campaign that reflected an overwhelming desire for change. We were determined to end the madness of the previous years. It was a vote for a better future. A vote for peace.

It was a euphoric time. And 20 years on, it’s easy to feel deflated and despondent in comparison. Our politicians have failed time and again to deliver on the palpable promise of those heady days. In the midst of petty bickering and disputes over relatively inconsequential issues, it’s hard not to feel disillusioned about the state of local politics. And yet it’s equally easy to forget how massive a triumph the GFA actually represents.

To understand the Agreement’s achievement, you have to put the negotiations in the unremittingly grim context of the time. The ’90s was a dire period for Northern Ireland. Shankill, Greysteel and countless other atrocities haunt everyone who lived through those bleak years. Yet, in spite of the inevitable bitterness and hatred that such events inspired, old enemies sat down, talked, listened and, against all odds, negotiated a political compromise that offered something for everyone. It was no mean feat.

The wholesale disillusion and cynicism that infects any discussion about the GFA is derived from unrealistic expectations regarding what the Agreement could deliver. In the halcyon days post the Agreement’s signing, many deluded themselves that the centuries old Irish problem had been solved, that we were all going to let bygones be bygones and live happily ever after. Such a preposterously idealistic vision was always going to get brought back to earth by the much more nuanced reality. There’s a propensity to look in the Agreement for answers it wasn’t able to deliver and, indeed, never intended to provide.

You see, the Agreement was never meant to be a perpetual and immutable solution to all  Ireland’s ills. In fact, it wasn’t really a settlement as such. Not a permanent one anyway. The GFA was a carefully calibrated and constructed compromise that gave something to everyone who bought into it. Although equality was of course one of the GFA’s central tenets, the Agreement didn’t seek to make everyone the same. One of the great fallacies of the last 20 years is the notion that the GFA meant we could forget our divided history and embrace a common and identical future.  Nationalists weren’t being encouraged to become unionists or vice versa.

Rather, the Agreement provided a framework where both the main traditions in Ireland could pursue their mutually exclusive and divergent agendas, but in a context of power-sharing and peace; in a climate of mutual tolerance and respect. It was about providing space for traditions and communities to respect one another and find ways to work together on areas of mutual interest. True reconciliation was indeed an integral aspiration but in 1998 such considerations were necessarily long term. Much more important 20 years ago was the fostering of  practical and meaningful cooperation; allowing the constitutional issue to resolve itself in the fullness of time.

And it’s those core concepts of mutual tolerance and respect, of parity of esteem; that have suffered so horrendously in the intervening years. As we survey the present wreckage and inertia that characterises modern northern politics, respect is indeed wholly conspicuous by its absence. How on earth can we work on trust and partnership, let alone reconciliation, if there isn’t even basic courtesy and respect? Given the calamitous mess we’re in, therefore, how do we define the bitterly disputed legacy of the GFA? And if there is a legacy, have we really squandered it?

For all our difficulties in Northern Ireland, we’ve come far. We must  remember that. It’s something we tend to overlook in this part of the world. It’s a Northern Irish thing. We blithely ignore our progress and fixate obsessively on our seemingly intractable problems. The glass is always half empty. But on the 20th anniversary of one of the key moments in modern Irish history, it seems more apt to focus on the positive side of the ledger.

In 1998 it seemed implausible, inconceivable even, that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could ever be in government together, let alone have a mutual affection and partnership. There was too much history, baggage and animosity. Sinn Féin and the DUP working together? Sure, don’t pigs fly too? And yet it happened. As did so much else besides. You only have to look around Belfast city centre to see how a haunted town has been transformed into a bustling, busy and, yes, increasingly cosmopolitan place. Would any of those breakthroughs have happened without the GFA? Don’t believe it.

So, how should the Agreement be assessed, twenty years on from its codification? Despite its legion of problems, the story of the GFA remains a narrative of success. Of course, there are flaws but its constitutional and political architecture endures in spite of those issues. The most common gripe has always been that the Agreement institutionalised sectarianism; that the GFA created as many problems as it actually solved. There are no shortage of believers in the idea that Northern Ireland’s vast political problems have been exacerbated by the GFA and the awkward idea of ‘constructive ambiguity’ utilised by successive governments to smooth its rocky implementation.

While the idea has plenty of merit, it’s hard to dispute the notion that the Agreement delivered emphatically on its main purpose. If peace was the elusive prize, surely we can withstand a few forks in what was always going to be a difficult road to travel. It’s said that the price of liberty and peace is eternal vigilance and this truism was evidenced within months of the GFA when the Omagh bomb shattered the optimism of Good Friday. However, as we reflect on 20 years of the GFA and the new political dispensation it created, awful events like that have largely been consigned to the past.

Northern Ireland is transformed from where it was 20 years ago. Our peace might be imperfect and Brexit has certainly added another layer of complication to an already  vexed political process, but it’s wrong to discount and squander the gains of the last two decades. Flawed as it undeniably is, the Irish peace process has delivered the goods in so many lasting ways. In terms of legacy, a whole generation has grown up since 1998 that knows nothing of the Troubles. The dark days of the past are something those young people read about in history books. The GFA’s legacy is a legacy of peace. And that’s not too shabby.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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Does Stormont White Elephant Herald Post- Good Friday Agreement Era?

As I’m sure you know, I live in Northern Ireland. It’s a thoroughly unique and distinctive place. One of the most remarkable aspects of northern Irish life is that the region effectively has no government or administration at the moment. In fact, it currently has nothing that remotely resembles administrative efficacy. Since December last year, our government has been in a state of  semi-permanent hiatus, effectively suspended while the nominal partners in government (what a misnomer that is) embark on their latest round of bickering and accusation. Anyone who has the misfortune of following northern Irish politics with a degree of regularity will know that Stormont has become a by-word for stalemate and dysfunction; the power-sharing government and associated apparatus established by 1998’s Good Friday Agreement (GFA) have been fundamentally inoperable for some time.

So what, you might ask? Partnership governments and coalitions regularly fall apart all over the world as ideological differences and disputes prove discordant and intractable. Fair enough. What sets Northern Ireland apart is that our politicians can expect to be paid full, healthy salaries while they effectively sit on their hands and do nothing. And when I say nothing, that’s only a slight exaggeration. It’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it? And it’s us, the hard working taxpayers, who are subsidising the unjustifiable largesse and ostentation on the hill. I’ve a fair idea what would happen if I downed tools in my workplace and refused to do the job I was discharged to do. Different rules apply for Northern Ireland’s politicians, though. They’re able to make a virtue of continued inactivity, safe in the knowledge that their sizeable salaries will continue to be paid for the foreseeable future.

And, at the time of writing, there seems to be very little prospect of rapprochement  or accommodation. With two polarising elections in dangerously close proximity just ended, there seems little desire to get the exorbitant show back on the road. This ugly stalemate would be comical if the whole enterprise wasn’t so wasteful and lacking in everyday relevance. So, what happens if the circle isn’t squared? Direct Rule? More bloated and meaningless negotiations? Another bloody election? Each option carries inherent risk and danger.

What makes this impasse distinct from the countless others that have preceded it, is that it’s hard to see from where a potential breakthrough will come. Northern Ireland’s two largest parties-Sinn Féin and the DUP-appear further apart than ever and neither seem particularly vexed by the predicament they find themselves in. Indeed, some argue the parties stand to gain more by staying outside the Stormont executive while the messy melodrama that is Brexit plays out over the coming months and years.

Perhaps what we’re seeing is the emergence of a post-Good Friday Agreement era. The Agreement witnessed unprecedented euphoria and optimism throughout Ireland when talks were concluded nearly 20 years ago. Old enemies had sat down, talked (and listened) to each other and, against all the odds, hammered out a workable, if imperfect, compromise. Despite its obvious and fundamental flaws, the GFA was a valiant and venerable attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and seemingly ushered in a new era of peace and mutual respect between the main traditions  in Ireland. The GFA’s primary attribute was that it offered something for everyone: the consent principle was enshrined for unionists, while nationalists were able to retain an aspiration for Irish unity within a new constitutional architecture that accentuated and augmented an all-Ireland dimension.

One of the primary criticisms of the GFA has always been that it institutionalised sectarianism; that instead of eradicating division it rather embraced political and religious difference and bestowed them with official blessing. Such critique is overly simplistic and ignores the laudable intentions behind the consociational ideals that underpin the GFA and its power-sharing structures.

After all, in a divided society that was emerging from a bitter and sinister sectarian conflict, it was inevitable that checks and balances were built into the new governmental architecture. One of the issues that’s hampered progress in the ensuing years  is that the GFA was predicated on perceived moderate parties (the Ulster Unionists and SDLP) leading the power-sharing administration and executive. And for the first few years of the executive’s existence, that’s exactly how it was.

However, these parties were soon completely and remorselessly usurped by their ambitious rivals in the DUP and Sinn Féin, who moved decisively to the centre and unashamedly stole their opponents’ clothes. With the UUP and SDLP at the helm, the GFA stood a fighting chance of being implemented and developed in the way its framers had originally intended. With  more polarised elements in control of the process, however, that original concept of shared government has proved much more elusive and challenging. No-one should be remotely surprised by this. A mandatory coalition comprised of sworn enemies pursuing  diametrically opposed agendas was always going to be a difficult edifice to maintain. It’s nothing short of a miracle, in fact, that the executive, under the DUP-Sinn Féin watch, lasted ten years before imploding amid acrimony and recrimination.

As precarious as Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures undoubtedly are, we now have the destabilising influence of Brexit to add into this volatile mix. Presumably, the last thing unionist leaders and politicians wanted was the existential question of the Irish border brought to the fore in a meaningful way. And yet that’s what last June’s historic Brexit vote has done. Whatever else about the intentions of the negotiators behind the GFA, its structures certainly weren’t conceived to exist in an Ireland divided further by citizens within and without the European Union.

Indeed, one of the great selling points of the GFA was that it was to be guaranteed and stewarded by two sovereign governments, themselves inextricably linked and bound as partners within the EU. Instead, what Brexit is set to deliver is an Irish state firmly and comfortably within the EU sharing a lengthy and reinforced land border with a Northern Ireland that will be (despite the wishes of a majority of its citizens) outside the European Union; unable to avail of the protections and benefits afforded to member states. You don’t have to be Einstein to see the hornet’s nest that’s been opened up with regard to both Anglo-Irish relations and internal Irish politics.

While the exact effect of Brexit on Northern Irish politics remains to be seen (and indeed negotiated), the inert state of northern politics is altogether easier to discern. Inter-party relations are perilously close to rock bottom, cooperation has been rendered virtually obsolete, trust seems a foreign concept, compromise a dirty word, while mutual respect has been replaced by suspicion and ouright hostility. In all of this, the question arises: is Stormont worth putting back together? Do any of us actually benefit from the white elephant on the hill that’s taken inactivity and political vacuum to new levels?

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same activity or pattern repeatedly and expecting different results. So, all aboard the gravy train for another futile journey to nowhere? Perhaps that’s where we’re inevitably headed. Or maybe the parties have accepted that alternative solutions finally have to be considered in a post- GFA and post-Brexit era. If the main antagonists have had their fill of Stormont and want to explore new horizons, that’s a perfectly valid position. What’s obnoxious to many of us is that they continue to get paid for their lacklustre and listless efforts. The suspicion lingers that the current dynamic would swiftly change if MLA’s salaries were stopped or curtailed. For the increasingly small number of people who still value the Stormont farce, this could be their only hope.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

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Brexit: A Sleepwalk into Disaster

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union”

My alarm clock went off at 6:00 as usual on Friday morning, but the world I woke up to was markedly different to the one I left when I fell asleep. It was the dulcet tones of Conor Bradford that relayed this cataclysmic news to  me. For those unfamiliar with the broadcast journalist, Bradford is a newsreader and anchor on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme. His grand and patrician style is particularly appropriate for events of such significance. l couldn’t believe his words. Like most of us, I hadn’t seen this coming.

I’m a bit of political anorak and had spent most of Thursday evening watching the television analysis of the Brexit referendum. However, as I retired to slumber, all the meaningful early predictions and exit polls were calling a narrow but clear victory for the Remain campaign. Therefore, the mind-boggling news that the electorate had decided to end the UK’s 43 year membership of the EU came as an almighty shock. Coming from Northern Ireland, the Brexit debate has undoubtedly assumed a greater significance, given the complex dynamics of all-Ireland political and  economic structures. All of a sudden, we were facing the unsettling prospect of sharing a land border with the European Union. What would that mean for our industry and agriculture? On Friday morning, shock and confusion reigned above all else. Dismay was the prevailing emotion. The fact that Northern Ireland had voted to remain was scant consolation.

Once the shock had abated, my mind turned to a more rational analysis of these groundbreaking and unprecedented events. What did it all mean? How best to make sense of the madness? It occurs to me that whatever about the merits of the outcome, this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. My abiding impression of the Brexit fiasco is that this was a critical decision made by many without even a basic comprehension of the facts. I can scarcely recall a political debate where the campaign was so thin on information and rational argument. The Brexit referendum was a triumph of ignorance and alarmist rhetoric over rationality. There was plenty of noise, but no real substance. For a decision of such magnitude, the debate was painfully thin on detail. In fact, many people seemed genuinely confused about what they were actually voting about. Some folks seemed to think that the issue related to immigration. Although a misguided view, having regard to the EU’s insistence on the free movement of people, goods, and services, you can see how they came to that conclusion. Others strangely linked the referendum to terrorism. How bizarre! The idea that this unstable action has somehow made us safer in this volatile world must be the ultimate example of hysteria and ignorance triumphing over rational thought. The Brexit vote, it seems to me, is the result of a weird form of collective impulsiveness, individuals hastily making a vital decision without recourse to even the basic facts.

In truth, there are those who have no real interest in dealing with the facts in relation to this discussion . For events that are hijacked by such hysteria and febrile emotion, there is a form of “confirmation bias” at work here. Facts and details are consumed by a perfect storm of prejudice and preconceived ideas, sacred cows that cannot be challenged. It is my belief that the propagandists on both sides of this debate have no interest in hearing anything that remotely challenges their predetermined notions. For a debate of such fundamental importance, objectivity and emotional detachment were needed to drown out the rhetoric and emotion. Alas, the opposite appears to have been the case. As happens so often in these emotionally charged debates, individuals decide what side of the fence they’re on and then look for evidence, no matter how flimsy, to support and justify that preconceived view. That is an inherently flawed process when dealing with something so significant and fundamental.

The other curious factor was how many voters ostensibly sacrificed self -interest for  emotion.  It’s remarkable that Northern Irish farmers apparently derive over 70% of their income from the EU by virtue of the Common Agricultural Policy. And yet statistically, some of those same farmers must have voted for Brexit. In a region that is so dependent on EU finance and support, how can such actions be rationalised? And for that matter, it seems strange that the largest Unionist party supported a decision that seems, on the face of it, to be utterly detrimental to the stability and prosperity of their beloved United Kingdom. You wonder if they’ve given it any coherent thought. Maybe they want another Scottish referendum and the consequent break-up of the union they supposedly cherish?!  That’s before we even get to the dreadful miscalculation of David Cameron. The deeply flawed decision to hold this referendum is borne in arrogance and strategic senselessness. I’m no fan of Cameron and the Tory party, but I’ve always viewed Dave as an effective and clever politician; a consummate leader who  exerted an almost clinical control of an often dysfunctional and divided party. To have sacrificed his legacy, just a year after securing an impressive majority, is one of the greatest political errors of the last 50 years. Regret must be the least of Cameron’s emotions this morning.

In truth, Brexit has produced no real winners, aside from the remorselessly ambitious Boris and the eccentric, absurd Nigel. For all the well-meaning and naive talk of a second referendum, I think we’re stuck with this disaster. As someone living in Northern Ireland, we’re facing a particularly uncertain and potentially divisive time. What will the impact be in relation to our re-defined frontier? Surely there will be some form of enhanced demarcation and customs presence? No-one really knows for sure, but we’re about to find out. However, a time of great flux and uncertainty awaits the entire United Kingdom. Brexiteers. Strange term. Sounds a bit like musketeers. All for one and one for all? Not anymore following this seismic vote. Well, they’ve got what they wanted. The law of unintended consequences in all its dramatic glory. The UK has sleepwalked into Brexit. Now we all must face the consequences of this new and scary reality.

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Twitter:@RoryMcGimpsey