Last week marked the 20th birthday of the Good Friday Agreement. Or the Belfast Agreement. Even all these years later there remains debate over what it should be called which actually sums up our current political climate pretty well.

Those who sat in the room and signed their names to that fateful piece of paper probably thought that they were paving the way for a new Northern Ireland: a Northern Ireland that would be practically unrecognisable to the one that they were all too familiar with.

There was good reason for the Agreement to be signed. I don’t think there are many who would say that there wasn’t a need for something to change because we really couldn’t keep going on the way we were.

It hadn’t been an easy road: it took nearly two years of talks before a consensus was reached and numerous people were involved along the way, from local politicians to senator George Mitchell who came from the US as a Special Envoy for Northern Ireland to chair the peace negotiations.

It was a big deal because this Agreement was to set out the guidelines that would bring about a devolved government to Northern Ireland once again, ending around thirty years of direct rule and bringing a sense of normality back to the place. It was signed to create a society where all people could walk down the street without feeling intimidated by paramilitary groups marking their territory. It was to bring about a compromise that finally accepted the rather unique position that Northern Ireland held through the three strands of the Agreement: an acceptance that NI would have its own system of government, that it would retain a relationship with the Republic of Ireland and that the Republic of Ireland would maintain a relationship with the United Kingdom.

To me, they’re pretty straightforward understandings but then again, I was born only a few years before the Agreement came about and so have no real experience of how Northern Ireland was in the decades beforehand. I’ve heard plenty of stories of course, and many of them are just unimaginable. It’s easy to look at how things are in the present day and say that our whole social and political set-up is a mess but widen the timeline a bit and it’s clear to see just how much really has changed.

My mother was a nurse in Belfast through the 1980s and 1990s so she saw and experienced plenty and to hear of the place where she lived and worked seems a world away from where we are now. She has tales of being stopped by the army several times as she walked along the street. She can remember being called into the hospital when the Milltown Massacre took place because they needed all the trained hands that they could get. She recalls security alerts becoming so commonplace that they were seen as a nuisance rather than something to panic about.

Those kinds of things shouldn’t be seen as normal and I think that’s why the Good Friday Agreement was so crucial. After agreement was reached, the details were sent out to every single household in the shape of an A4 booklet and it’s a document that many still have squirrelled away in filing cabinets or attics even now because it was such an important turning point in history. When it came to voting in the May 22 referendum, more than 70 per cent of the electorate in Northern Ireland voted for it.

It wasn’t perfect. Nothing ever is. Even with two years of planning, there was still going to be flaws to it. But it was a good deal better than what was there beforehand. Some felt that they were conceding more than what they were benefiting from in the Agreement in regards to things like parades and policing. These were historically issues that were controversial in Northern Ireland and there really was never going to be an easy way to appease everyone.

The promise of decommissioning of arms was also a difficult one as it took nearly a decade for the decommissioning process to be officially completed and even so I can’t see there being many who believed that that was that when it was done. Even now there are still weapons and attitudes on the streets that should have disappeared back in 1998 but alas there are some who still feel committed to violence and refuse to accept that peaceful means will provide progress where violence will not.

It is however a shame that one of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement has fallen so badly of late. I am of course speaking of our lack of local government. This isn’t the first time that Stormont hasn’t been in session as it was temporarily suspended for short periods after the agreement before the fourth and final suspension in October 2002 brought us back into direct rule until 2007 following the St Andrew’s Agreement. It sadly seems that critical lessons from that time were not learnt. The Good Friday Agreement was all about partnership and the ability to work together and that seems to be something that is out of the reach of our politicians at the minute. They all keep saying that they’re ready to reform a government but none seem willing to step across the line and make sure that becomes a reality. Compromise was possible in 1998 so why is it so difficult now?

When the Agreement was signed, I’m sure that those involved had high hopes for the future and thought that two decades on, we wouldn’t still be fighting the same kind of battles. After twenty years of practice, we should be pretty good at being able to get along with each other and judge them on their own merit rather than on their religion, the area that they come from or the school that they attended. If true polar opposites were able to come together for the betterment of society back in 1998 as emotions were still high and hurts still very raw, then why can the same not be done now when most of that has passed. Time is said to be a healer after all.

There should be something of a celebration to mark the anniversary of that historic Belfast Agreement but instead, we’re still reminded that Stormont lies empty and that the efforts put in to coming to that deal have been all but ignored. 35 pages were all that it took to bring about a real shift in Northern Ireland and it’s so disappointing now to see that we have so badly failed to uphold the core values of the Agreement. It’s not that the damage that has been done in the past year or two is irreversible, but the longer that ill feelings are left to fester among the parties, the more likely that is to happen.