The Good Friday Agreement twenty years on

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Volume 26


It is deeply ironic that in this ‘decade of commemorations’ the marking of a more recent one—the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement—has been relatively muted. This is in marked contrast to the self-congratulation and back-slapping of the same anniversary ten years ago. Of course, that was before the banking collapse of 2008 and Brexit eight years later. Back then, on the prospects for the Agreement, I editorialised, paraphrasing Zhou Enlai’s apocryphal assessment of the French Revolution, that ‘it’s too soon to say’. Given the imminent threat of a ‘hard border’ and the current suspension of the North’s power-sharing executive, it’s even ‘sooner’ (sic) now!

The fundamental paradox of the agreement remains—that the sectarian divisions it seeks to overcome are institutionalised in the agreement itself. This has been depressingly borne out in the interim by the ‘identity politics’ engaged in by the two power-sharing parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP. But the latter party, surely, has more questions to answer in that regard. How else can we explain its support for Brexit, in the face of a substantial cross-community majority for Remain, but as a deliberate attempt to torpedo the agreement? The DUP has still not explained the circumstances of its receipt of over €500,000 from the mysterious Constitutional Research Council, most of which was spent in the pro-Brexit campaign not in Northern Ireland but in the ‘mainland’ UK. And given the narrowness of the result, who’s to say that that wasn’t decisive?

But this manoeuvre to pull up the drawbridge and draw Northern Ireland closer to the UK and away from the EU and Ireland may have the opposite effect. Why? Because it runs counter to both the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement that is not only internal but between two sovereign states, brokered by the US, supported by the EU and registered in the UN. The Irish government can hardly be criticised for defending it even if, according to former UUP leader David Trimble, its stance runs the risk of ‘provoking loyalist paramilitaries’. (Perhaps I’ve missed something here, but weren’t they supposed to have decommissioned, along with republican paramilitaries?)

The Good Friday Agreement allows for the possibility of Irish unity by consent. Isn’t it time for unionist political leaders to prepare for that possibility?

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