Fionnbharr Rodgers, Contributor.
I must admit my own tendency to romanticism, perhaps blind optimism, but I can’t accept Alex Kane’s assertion that ‘the Good Friday Agreement is, to all intents and purposes, dead.’
On second thoughts, it might be Catholic stubbornness on my part.
It cannot be denied that the causeway between Sinn Féin and the DUP has been battered to pieces by the tides of their respective political aspiration, and Kane makes a reasoned analysis of the elections of last year (all three thousand and two of them) as manifestations of that rift.
However, the question must be asked: what’s new?
There is generally, in print and in speech, a lack of acknowledgement for the Peace Process as a process which will fluctuate just as the tide comes in and draws back out.
We often make the mistake of reading history backwards, with our own present as a starting position, which gives the luxury of hindsight to our analysis; though to read history forward we see it as it was lived, and we see that there are no inevitabilities in our political future.
Partition was not inevitable, in fact, as Liam Kennedy wrote, it was unlikely. Anyone before 1922 knew Ireland as one country and to see it divided into two states would have been as far outside the borders of their imagination as a united Ireland is to some today. Geoffrey Lewis, in his biography of Edward Carson, quotes a letter from the wife of Carson’s private secretary, where she described the partition of Ireland as akin to ‘cutting a live animal in half.’
Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement was, in 1998, merely the latest in a long line of efforts to create peace, and there was no guarantee that it would work.
As there are no guarantees to history and politics, of that you can be sure: the future lives on the edge of a coin and every inch of progress must be clawed from the jaws of fate by hand, until your fingers are worn away to bone, and the notion of giving up tempts you like the “divil” in the desert.
The Good Friday Agreement was the latest in a long line of peacebuilding attempts. The start of the Troubles is usually taken to be the 5th October 1968 (though I maintain it was 1912, and many say 1167); the Corrymeela Community was founded in 1965. In 1971, the Peace People was started; and 1974 brought into being the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. At the institutional level, the year before, the Sunningdale Agreement was signed, largely including the same principles as the Good Friday Agreement; why Seamus Mallon described the latter as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners.’
It seems that the Good Friday Agreement found its success in the alignment of both institutional and grassroots efforts.
Twenty years on and the institutions have returned to their historical parade route of stalemate (not an inch, no surrender, and don’t feed the crocodiles) yet the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement can still be found in the enormous talents of the people of Northern Ireland who realise that ‘an eye for an eye just makes more people die’ (borrowing a line from the song So Much Love by Matthew McGrath.)
People such as those named above, and also including: Linda Ervine, who started the programme Turas (‘journey’ as Gaeilge) which encourages Protestants to learn Irish and has vastly exceeded expectations in its success; the Rev. Harold Good who last year asked ‘this is all we live for?’ when he saw the bonfires of Eleventh Night (rather impressive structures, one has to admit) and announced his intention to enlist the bonfire builders for Habitat for Humanity to put their talents to more positive, constructive use. In Rostrevor, Co. Down, the Arts a Wonder Collective, the committee of which includes the ‘Bard of Peace’ Tommy Sands, journalist Billy Graham, and Imam Dr. Muhammad Al-Hussaini (known for his defence of Pastor James McConnell’s right to criticise Islam), and aims to create dialogue and ‘a higher quality of disagreement’ amongst people of the Abrahamic religions. Similarly, the Men Sheds Association, founded on the principle that ‘men don’t talk face to face, but shoulder to shoulder,’ and men to confront their emotions and deal with them in a healthy way, has seen chapters cropping up all around the country.
Meanwhile, on The Blame Game, Jake O’Kane continues to give MLAs a metaphorical kick up the arse, which is no bad thing in reasonable dosages.
Civic society is far and away ahead of institutional politics, and these efforts should be afforded greater recognition at every level, that the greatest number might contribute to them and, in equal measure, benefit from them.
The Good Friday Agreement created peace in Northern Ireland, evidenced by the fact that paramilitary violence has become the exception to the rule rather than the other way around. Reconciliation, however, after a century of conflict, is an ongoing process which will take a lot longer to achieve.