From the Editor…

Published in Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Letters, Letters, Volume 16

Too soon to say/It’s early yet

It is now ten years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the anniversary has been marked by a plethora of analyses in both broadcast and print media (and books: see ‘Bookworm’, p. 54). Moreover, it comes at a time when most of the architects of the agreement have departed the scene. Bill Clinton’s exit in 2000 was predetermined by the US constitution (although Hilary is still attempting to get mileage out of his [her?] involvement). John Hume and David Trimble, deserved Nobel Peace Prize winners, are now seen as the martyrs of the process (but surely the latter only had himself to blame for not selling the deal positively to his own constituency?). Tony Blair’s departure last year was determined not so much by the (unwritten) British constitution as by the (unwritten) ‘Granita Pact’ with his successor, Gordon Brown. Unfortunately for Blair, the ‘hand of history’ that will lie heaviest upon him will not be for his contribution to conflict resolution in Ireland (and let’s give credit where credit’s due) but for conflict escalation in Iraq and the Middle East. Bertie Ahern, whose patient negotiating skills made such a huge contribution, for so long the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’, eventually came unstuck (sic) because of his ‘unorthodox’ accounting procedures. And now even ‘Big Ian’, who has loomed large over the North’s political landscape for nigh on half a century, is about to go. While not an architect of the agreement, cynics would say that he was certainly an architect of the conflict. Nevertheless, he too has made his contribution to the inevitable compromises. Which leaves only Gerry Adams, but last year’s election set-backs in the South, coupled with recent criticism on law-and-order issues in his own West Belfast heartland, seem to suggest that any political ‘slipstream’ effect from the Peace Process has long since dissipated as the Republican Movement grapples with the banalities of ‘ordinary politics’, North and South.
But surely assessment of the Good Friday Agreement is premature? In spite of overwhelming island-wide endorsement by referendum at the time, it took our politicians another nine years to put the last bits of the jigsaw in place (with the establishment of a stable power-sharing executive only a year ago). Many issues (such as the devolution of policing) remain unresolved; despite the fiscal burden, the British exchequer is unwilling to sanction measures (like harmonising corporation taxes with the South, for example) that might revive the North’s economy if it runs the political risk of weakening the UK constitutionally (so Westminster has selfish strategic interests in Northern Ireland after all?). But fundamentally there remains the paradox that an agreement painstakingly designed to overcome sectarian divisions institutionalises those very divisions in its structures. So, in the words of Zhou Enlai in his assessment of the French Revolution, ‘It’s too soon to say’; or, in the words of Groucho Marx in response to Margaret Dumont’s complaint that she had never been so insulted in all her life, ‘It’s early yet’.

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