Other speakers at the conference are addressing important issues such as the holding of a border poll and the question of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. I will suggest that the overriding conclusion from fifteen years of implementation of the Agreement is that we need a new multi-party agreement, linked to a new inter-governmental treaty.
The Good Friday Agreement has delivered much of what it promised. The first and most tangible benefit is the end to killing and maiming. The detailed provisions on rights, equality, policing, justice and so on have worked reasonably well. A limited, but potentially expandable, agenda of North / South integration has been achieved. Relations between Ireland and Britain have never been better. However, the power-sharing Executive has the negative effect of perennially cementing group identities and has made normal governance unattainable.
In their statement marking fifteen years from the Agreement, the Catholic Bishops’ Council for Justice and Peace vividly summarised where the island of Ireland stands today:
‘Those communities worst affected by the violence continue to experience the highest levels of socioeconomic deprivation, unemployment, antisocial behaviour, drug abuse and suicide among young people, in addition to the ongoing threat of paramilitary violence. This situation is mirrored in the most deprived communities in the Republic, where the threat of violence and the lack of hope for the future are part of the daily reality of too many young people.’
The Good Friday Agreement was negotiated on a rising tide of prosperity and self-confidence in the Republic arising from EU membership and globalisation. Utter revulsion at the methods used in the conduct of the thirty years of conflict was also a major factor.
In the North, probably the single greatest factor was war fatigue – on all sides. The IRA finally acknowledged, not only that they could not bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland, but they had no chance of persuading them either if they continued running a paramilitary campaign. Equally, unionists and loyalists had to accept that nationalist identity and aspirations to Irish unity are entitled to a legitimate space and that the Republic is entitled, as of right, to a say in how the North is run. A decisive factor was the acceptance by the two sovereign governments that a purely internal solution would not work. Now, however, since the seismic financial crash that started in 2008, economic and political confidence has collapsed. As the economic tide has receded, the submerged reefs and rocks of sectarianism are being exposed again. They never went away, you know!
The last twelve months began with the festering controversy over the flying of the union flag over Belfast city hall. We still have the perennial controversies and ritualistic rioting over marches and commemorations. Attacks on the police have escalated, to the point where the Police Federation called for a six-month long moratorium on all parades. Dissident Republicans continue trying to progress their hateful agenda of shootings, bombings and assaults. To this dreary catalogue we may add incidents like the controversial commemorative parade in Castlederg, county Tyrone, the despicable treatment of the Lord Mayor of Belfast when he visited Woodvale to inaugurate a community facility, and unionist and loyalist intransigence over the idea of a peace centre at the site of the former Maze prison.
Is there not a real danger that these events are just the tip of a very deep iceberg of sectarianism? If the two governments continue to ignore this resurgence of sectarianism – and if politicians in the North continue to exacerbate it – how long will it be before these events tip over into a pre-Agreement level of inter-community strife?
Looking back at the factors that led to the Agreement, three conditions seem necessary for a resumption of political development and progress. Both sovereign governments, and politicians on both sides, need to face up to the reality that this continuing, relentless austerity is putting the limited achievements of the Good Friday Agreement under intolerable strain. The struggle to build peace on the island is inextricably bound up with the campaign against austerity.
The second pre-requisite is for the two sovereign governments to prioritise and re-engage with maintaining and enhancing what has been achieved under the Good Friday Agreement. The only time there has been real political progress is when the governments have been closely involved.
The third essential element is the re-emergence of independent, international third party facilitation. The president of the US Council of Foreign Relations, an experienced diplomat, Richard Haas, is chairing talks that are intended to tackle some of the most divisive issues, like parades, flag and emblems. The All-Party Panel includes representatives from the Assembly parties and will present a set of recommendations that will be supported by all the parties, before the end of the year.
However, the reported agenda and ambition of these talks is too limited. The key to progress is not just to tweak the existing Agreement, but to move decisively to a new one. One that learns from the successes – but more importantly – the failures of Good Friday Agreement One and that absorbs the lessons of the past fifteen years of implementation. There should be no prior limitations placed on where the Haas discussions might go or what they might lead to. Good Friday One is not the terminus of peace and normality. It is merely a bus stop on the road there.
What is even more important than setting out a specific agenda for talks is the spirit in which the parties approach talks. The parties need to move beyond a mechanistic ‘tit-for-tat’ understanding of parity of esteem, where one side or the other will not make a political concession unless guaranteed a response by the other. It is time for ‘generosity of esteem’, as well as ‘parity of esteem’.
This approach is illustrated by the story of my own family. My grandfather, Erskine Childers, served twice in the British forces: firstly, in the Boer War and secondly during World War I. He migrated from being a Liberal Party Home Ruler to a Sinn Féin TD in the first Dáil and, ultimately, one of the fiercest opponents of the Treaty. He was executed by firing squad on 24th November 1922 for possession of an ornamental pistol, given to him by Michael Collins two years earlier as a wedding present. On the night before his execution, in his condemned cell, he charged my father with the responsibility of shaking the hand and forgiving every member of the Free State cabinet who had condemned him to death. My father carried out that solemn duty.
That is the kind of spirit of esteem we need to display now to move the Good Friday Agreement forward. We – the leaders, politicians and people on both sides – need to grasp and shake the hands, and finally forgive, those who, in the past, would have condemned us to death politically, if not literally. We need to recall, and live, the lines of Michael Longley’s wonderful poem ‘Ceasefire’, which might well have been written about my grandfather’s act of reconciliation:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’.