This week the Good Friday Agreement turned 19. It’s quite ironic given that its anniversary falls at a time when our current political institutions are in such crisis. Perhaps then it is fitting that the deadline for this extension of talks falls on Good Friday of this year.
At the same time, it’s hugely disappointing that despite the ageing of this historic agreement, we still aren’t quite as developed as it was probably hoped at that time. We should perhaps be on a more even keel with Scotland: secure in our devolution and able to hold our own against Westminster. We should be spending time looking forward and setting out long term plans rather than taking each day as it comes and keeping our collective fingers crossed that there won’t be a new scandal that could potentially upset the apple cart.
I do wonder how far we’ve really managed to come. The Good Friday Agreement came after 30 years of violent conflict that affected all sides with many innocent people needlessly losing their lives. Those 30 years were dealt with in 36 hours of intensive talks in which the agreement was borne.
Managing to create a devolved government wasn’t easy. Stormont was suspended four times in the six years immediately after the Belfast Agreement and we were under direct rule at those times, the longest of which spanned the five years between October 2002 and May 2007. I don’t have many memories of that time being only a few years older than the agreement itself, but I can imagine the frustration that was felt among people at the hope felt at a promise of a local assembly and then the disappointment that came when it failed once again.
2007 was the turning point that was needed but that too needed another agreement. This time the parties took advantage of Scotland’s hospitality and named it after them in thanks. There are some similarities between the St. Andrew’s Agreement talks and the talks that are being held this time around as both centred around contentious issues. Back then, it was the acceptance of the PSNI by Sinn Féin and a commitment from the DUP to power share with Irish republicans. They’re likely things that some never thought that they would see in their lifetime and yet it happened. It happened with enough support that Northern Ireland had uninterrupted government for a few months shy of a decade.
The Programme for Government for 2008-2011 had an introduction that was filled with hope. It opened with the line, “we are entering a more optimistic and promising era” and made several nods towards working together, accepting help from outside when needed and aiming for a future that was better for all people in society. There was an emphasis on keeping peace in Northern Ireland, and it acknowledged inequalities that needed to be eliminated. It was a document that would fill a reader with hope.
To look at that document and then move straight on to the Programme for Government for 2016-2021 only serves to highlight the shift that has taken place and part of me isn’t sure that I like it. Rather than evoking a feeling of optimism, the forward declares, “government first and foremost must be about making people’s lives better”. That hard, snappy language and tone continues throughout and it feels more clinical rather than oozing the friendliness and approachability that Northern Ireland is so famed for.
It is quite entertaining to look upon this document now in the light of the crisis that has hit Stormont. In simple black and white we are told that the Executive parties “are fully agreed and united” and have a “shared vision”. It seems now that this could not be further from the truth.
The history of Northern Ireland has been built upon formal agreements but we’re reaching a point where they are not worth the fancy headed paper that they have been written on. Parties seem to pick and choose which parts they adhere to and which parts they now have problems with. Why these problems were not aired years ago is anyone’s guess.
From what I can see looking on as an outsider, is that some don’t seem to want to come to a compromise for the betterment of Northern Ireland. I think we’re now in the sixth week of talks but it seems that there has been more time spent on producing media briefings than there actually has been around the table. There has been one overarching task to accomplish in this time: form a government. It’s not difficult. Most of us would be able to do that in a couple of days because we can see that getting bogged down in party political point scoring is pointless and only serves to make a mockery of our democracy.
Sinn Féin are now calling for another election, stating that after Friday it is time for the electorate to have their say again. To put it bluntly, what is the point? We’ve just wasted five million or so on an election and they want us to waste the same amount again? He may be long gone, but Einstein surely foresaw the state that Northern Ireland was going to find itself in when he defined insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We’ve been to the polls and we chose to elect people to form a government. We wanted democracy and we wanted things to go back to normal. We wanted financial security for our health service and schools. We wanted legislation to be created. We wanted our politicians to find the answers to the problems we’re facing. We did not vote for MLAs to receive pay rises for doing very little. In no other job would an employee be allowed to do nothing for months on end but still get paid.
An election isn’t some magical little device that will sort everything out. Nothing has changed in a month, save an increase in public anger. We would go from seeing an historically high turnout to one of the lowest on record as people protested by not turning out. The same people would be returned to Stormont and so we’d have the same intransigence. The same problems would remain with no hope of being sorted out. Direct rule would solve even less: England has enough problems on its own doorstep without having to spend time worrying about ours. UK MPs are going to base decisions about Northern Ireland on what they can find from a quick Google search or briefing paper rather than from experience and consultation.
We’re constantly hearing of demands and red lines but nothing of the conciliation and unity of recent years gone by. Instead we’re watching something play out that can barely be registered as reality. We adults elected fellow adults to look after our best interests but instead they’re showing themselves to be petulant children in the playground. Instead of talking out their problems, they’re badmouthing the others to all who will listen.
I, and the majority of people in Northern Ireland, are quite frankly sick to the back teeth of it all. It’s time that they grow up and do they job they’ve been lucky enough to be elected to do. Progress was made back in 1998 so why has it stalled so badly in 2017?
The Good Friday Agreement was an historic event that provided a beacon of hope to a generationwho grew up knowing only violence. We now have a generation who know of peace and usually effective devolved government.
Let’s not have the next generation knowing only of the bleakness of Northern Ireland’s future and of the unavoidable failure of Stormont. Someone in Stormont needs to be the bigger person here and make sure that a solution is reached.
When we think of Good Friday, we automatically think of agreement. Let’s not change that now to the Good Friday Disagreement.