Peter Geoghegan: Spirit of historic deal dead

Players in the Agreement: David Trimble, Bill Clinton, Seamus Mallon and Tony Blair. Picture: AFP
Players in the Agreement: David Trimble, Bill Clinton, Seamus Mallon and Tony Blair. Picture: AFP
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“A DAY like today is not a day for soundbites, really,” Tony Blair said on arriving in Belfast on 8 April, 1998.

But, the former prime minister could never help himself: “But, I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders.” Blair’s optimism was well placed: two days later, fifteen years ago today, the Good Friday Agreement was signed at Castle Buildings at Stormont. After thirty years of violence, the war in Northern Ireland was over.

It is difficult to overplay the symbolism, or the significance, of the deal reached on 10 April, 1998. “Historic Agreement marks a new beginning for us all” ran the headline in the following day’s Irish Times.

And it was genuinely momentous. For the first time nationalists and unionists, republicans and loyalists had reached an agreement on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

“The Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations”, to give the document its full title, acknowledged the desires of the majority to remain part of the UK, but also recognised that a “substantial section” wished for Irish unification.

Seamus Mallon, who went on to become SDLP deputy first minister in the first devolved Stormont assembly, famously described the Good Friday accord as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. And the deal reached in 1998 was, in many respects, bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher’s finest hour in Ireland, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and its 1973 progenitor, Sunningdale.

At the heart of all these settlements was the assumption that power-sharing and equal recognition of nationalists and unionists was the most effective way to ensure broad support for the political institutions and to foster peace rather than violence. The Good Friday Agreement was underpinned by the notion of “parity of esteem”: as Article 1 made clear, “the power of the sovereign government… shall be founded upon… parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.”

The Agreement re-established devolved government at Stormont, but this time with a unique voting system designed to guarantee power-sharing. On election to the assembly all members must designate themselves “nationalist,” “unionist,” or “other.” Most bills in the assembly require 60 per cent support to pass and at least 40 per cent support from both the nationalist and unionist designations voting.

As with both Sunningdale and the Anglo Irish Agreement, the Good Friday deal faced significant unionist opposition. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists boycotted the talks, ostensibly because of the presence of Sinn Fein. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, consistently walked a tightrope between his restive party and the demands of finally doing a deal to end the Troubles.

Indeed, the talks lurched from crisis to crisis in the days leading up to the imposed deadline of Good Friday. It was the involvement of US senator George Mitchell, Blair and Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, as well as a supportive phone call from then president Bill Clinton that has widely been credited with providing Trimble with the assurances he needed to sell the deal to his party and, later, the unionist electorate.

As well as establishing a historic consensus that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland should be decided by purely peaceful, democratic means, the agreement also confirmed the rights of everyone in Northern Ireland to claim British citizenship, Irish citizenship, or both. The rights of the nationalist minority were safeguarded; the Irish government agreed to hold a referendum to amend controversial claims to the territory of Northern Ireland made in its constitution.

These referenda – on the Agreement, in Northern Ireland, and on the proposed constitutional changes, south of the border – were both held on 22 May. The result in the Republic was overwhelming – more than 94 per cent in favour. In the North, the situation was a little less clear: over 70 per cent said yes to the Agreement, but the result masked the fact that just over half of unionists backed the deal. Elections to the devolved assembly the following month cemented this split. While the two moderate parties, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, finished first and second respectively, pro-Agreement unionists took a total of 30 seats, just two more than the anti-Agreement faction headed by Paisley and the UUP.

Problems quickly arose. Disagreements over parliamentary procedures and IRA decommissioning led to extended periods of stasis. From 1999 to 2002 the assembly sat only intermittently, before it was eventually suspended in October 2002 and dissolved the following April.

Somewhat miraculously, more than ten years on, the Good Friday Agreement has held firm. In May 2007, power-sharing was finally re-instated, with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists at the helm at Stormont. And they have been there ever since.

An agreement that was bashed out in a few long days against the clock and against historical enmities has proved remarkably responsive to the demands of Northern Irish politics. Parliamentary politics has replaced violence as the modus operandi of political change in Northern Ireland. Between 2006 and 2010 only nine people were killed in political violence, compared with an average of more than 100 per year during the 30 years of The Troubles.

But Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. In housing and education, Northern Ireland remains one of the most segregated places in the world – fewer than one in ten children attend a school that is integrated between Catholics and Protestant.

While it is rightly credited for bringing peace and stability, the Good Friday Agreement has also contributed to the polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland. The power-sharing system it established privileges sectarian politics – in a system where power is concentrated solely in the hands of those designated “unionist” or “nationalist” there is no motivation to vote for the “other”.

As an elite-level compromise designed to end a seemingly intractable conflict, the Good Friday Agreement has been a tremendous success. But it created a distance between Northern Ireland’s political classes and its voters. It is a gap that appears to be widening, as the recent loyalist flag protests and on-going dissident republican activity attests.

Political life at Stormont, ravaged by public spats and inaction, has turned voters off in droves. The lack of a real opposition has not helped matters. A long-neglected anti-sectarian strategy, Sharing, Cohesion and Integration, has still not been passed.

The Ulster Unionists, architects of the 1998 deal, are a cautionary tale of post-Good Friday Agreement politics in Northern Ireland. The party won ten seats at Westminster in 1997 and topped the poll at Stormont a year later.

Squeezed by the DUP on the right and Alliance from the middle, only 16 UUP candidates were returned in the 2011 Assembly election. The party now has 13 Members of the Legislative Assembly following the departure of three high profile MLAs – John McCallister, Basil McCrea and David McClarty. Addressing the annual general meeting of the UUP last month, party leader Mike Nesbitt said they should learn to “apologise” for their role in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement was historic, but fifteen years on the consensus reached on 10 April 1998 survives more in body than in spirit.