Twenty years on
James Harvey recalls the Good Friday agreement and looks to the problems that lie ahead
An ‘historic gathering’ of the international great and good celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in Belfast on April 10. Celebrity politicians jetted in for the occasion and ageing veterans of the peace process - the ‘class of 1998’ - returned once more to the spotlight to acknowledge the applause of the media.
It was quite like the old times, as the successes of the agreement in ending the conflict were recounted from the podium and past glories were remembered in innumerable photo calls off-stage. Star billing went to the three former heads of government - Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern - who had been so instrumental in ‘bringing peace to Northern Ireland’. Tony Blair perhaps best captured the self-congratulatory tone of the day when he argued that the 1998 deal took “real courage” by the Northern Ireland parties, and that “for all its faults” the Good Friday agreement was “worth doing and worth keeping”.
For Bill Clinton the agreement was a “work of surpassing genius” because it created “a space for the identity and the interests and the values of all the people involved - in a framework which protected democracy and let future demographic, economic and political changes take Northern Ireland wherever it would go”. Gerry Adams took up the theme by suggesting that “the institutions will be back in place” quite soon. The agreement “is going to guide politics … and relationships on this island into the foreseeable future”, which he thought would be “very bright”. Yes, there is “always an ebb and a flow”, but the current ebb is “temporary”.
Although both politicians and commentators tried to remain upbeat, this reference to the continued suspension of the Northern Ireland executive and assembly highlighted the central, unresolved question of the last 15 months: does the agreement really have a future?
The Good Friday agreement was the product of a drawn-out peace process which began in the late 1980s and culminated in intense negotiations between the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s political parties, including Provisional Sinn Féin.1 The ostensible aim was to end three decades of violent political conflict by introducing a devolved system of government for the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, in which nationalists and unionists would share power. It was specifically aimed at providing “the framework for a political process, in which a conflict about different conceptions of national belonging could be de-escalated below the threshold of violence and, in the long term, be fundamentally transformed”.2
Seeking to manage and maintain an “acceptable level of violence” and ‘normalising’ relations between unionists and nationalists became a key theme in the British state’s political strategy in response to the revolutionary crisis in the north from the late 1960s. It became even more important following the suspension of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule in 1972. First enunciated in a 1972 green paper, this strategy attempted to reconfigure the British state in the north and modify the structures and forms of British rule.3
This was to be achieved by removing the most obvious abuses of unionist power and attempting to integrate sections of the nationalist population - in particular the so-called ‘constitutional nationalists’, represented electorally by the Social Democratic and Labour Party - into the government of the Six Counties. However, whilst ‘power-sharing’ might reconcile elements of the nationalist population to the status quo and isolate militant republicanism, the principle that the future constitutional status of the Six Counties would turn on the “consent of the majority” was designed to reassure unionists about the new dispensation.4
The British state also recognised the ‘Irish dimension’ of the conflict and increasingly saw the Dublin regime as a potential ally - both in stabilising the north and containing the revolutionary challenge of Provisional republicanism throughout the island. Thus the self-interest of the southern ruling class, in wishing to preserve its own partitioned state, and the desire of the British government for a reliable counterrevolutionary partner coincided to produce the Sunningdale agreement in 1973. 5 Significantly at this stage revolutionary republicanism was beyond the pale for both the British and Irish ruling classes: they entertained absolutely no expectations that the Provisionals might be drawn into the orbit of the state.
Although Sunningdale was overthrown by the mobilisation of widespread unionist hostility to power-sharing and the ‘Irish dimension’, climaxing in the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in May 1974, its strategic aims and institutional framework would remain central to both British and Irish policy up to and beyond 1998.6 Thus Seamus Mallon’s famous quip that the Good Friday agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners” is a perfectly accurate summary of state strategy in the north up to the present time.7
Where Sunningdale failed, the Good Friday agreement remains a ‘shining success’. According to the official narrative, this resulted from its capacity to speak to and harness the popular desire for a ‘fair and honourable accommodation between all traditions’. Coming together to support the agreement, the ‘people of Northern Ireland’ forced the ‘men of violence’ to lay down their arms, leading to final demilitarisation and power-sharing.
More than a peace deal, the agreement provided a framework for peaceful negotiation, through which the “opposing ideologies” of Irish nationalism and British unionism can settle their differences and build a shared future.8 These master-platitudes were, from the very beginning, best (and most frequently) expressed by Tony Blair. He claimed that the Good Friday agreement
teaches us the value of a civic society where ancient divisions can be healed. Today, engagement and dialogue have shattered the depressing status quo of the past. ‘Working together’ - once dirty words - is now the basis of a new future that offers hope in place of war … The majority rejected the old ways … the fundamental lesson of Northern Ireland for us all … [is that] … [t]here is no place in the 21st century for narrow and exclusive traditions. It underlines the supreme importance in the modern world of understanding our dependence on one another, for future progress.9
The agreement did nothing of the kind. Since 1998 its institutions and politics have been bedevilled by recurrent crises and numerous suspensions.10 From the earliest disputes over Irish Republican Army decommissioning (2000) and spy rings at Stormont (2002) through to the arguments over the Irish Language Act and the fall-out from the alleged Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal of 2017-18, ‘normalisation’ has proved a clear failure. As the current political hiatus shows, there is precious little “working together” at Stormont or anywhere else in the north for that matter.
Far from delivering peace and stability, the ‘new dispensation’ ushered in by the Good Friday agreement has instead acted to entrench communal division and reproduce sectarian politics.11 Furthermore, the quantitative and qualitative evidence of deepening polarisation within the north, such as the increase in the number of ‘peace walls’ and residential segregation since 1998 adds to this depressing picture.12
The current political stalemate reflects these continuing and deepening divisions: it is not simply the product of a lack of personal chemistry between Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill or merely a jockeying for political advantage within their respective unionist and nationalist electoral blocs, although these factors have their place.13 No, the real answer is that the Good Friday agreement fails to address the fundamental causes of the conflict in Ireland - the unresolved national question; and that, despite the dominant rhetoric of reconciliation, the central aim of the peace process is to manage and contain that conflict rather than transform and resolve it.14
The specific form of the agreement arose from the British containment of the Provisional movement and the effective exhaustion of its ‘ballot paper and armalite’ strategy by the early 1990s.15 Not only did the Adams leadership dress up its defeat as victory and present the peace process as just another transitional terrain of struggle, but the British government for its own purposes was more than happy to let it do so.
Rather than demanding an unequivocal surrender or drawing a line under the political aims of the movement, the much lauded ‘transitional’ features of the agreement helped to rescue both the leadership from the ignominy of total defeat and its followers from the demoralisation that this would have entailed. For the Provisionals it was a ‘get out of jail free’ card, in more ways than one.16 The key features - both of the text of the agreement itself and of the politics which flowed from it after 1998 - were constructive ambiguity and lexical obfuscation, elevated to an art form.17
Constructive ambiguity, combined with this well-rehearsed political choreography, practised by all politicians and governments, allowed the parties to ‘park’ sensitive issues in order to build consensus around areas of common ground and provide plausible scripts for telling contradictory and contrasting stories, designed to keep supporters and electorates on board.18 Throughout the 2000s this worked with varying degrees of success - perhaps reaching a high point in the years 2007-11 following the St Andrews agreement and the creation of a DUP/Sinn Féin-dominated executive. But behind the bonhomie and belly laughs of the ‘Chuckle brothers’ serious issues remained unresolved and these would return with ever-increasing frequency to disrupt the functions of the devolved government.
The recent suspension caused by the alleged RHI scandal and the Irish Language Act is just one of many such disagreements along the way. In their own way these have been relatively minor in the great scheme of things, but the way in which they have been exploited by both unionist and nationalist politicians to mobilise their voters and maintain their parties’ political dominance within their communal bloc points to much deeper fault lines and future fundamental instabilities.
As we have seen in recent months, the impact of Brexit on the north is one such future crisis waiting to happen. While the agreement is invariably posed as the settlement of inter-communal conflict within the Six Counties, it also functions as an intergovernmental treaty, aimed at resolving two historically contested claims to sovereignty on the island of Ireland.19 It is a creation of British and Irish statecraft, representing decades of cautious planning, strategic thinking and, above all, cooperation. While often fractious, the relationship has evolved into an almost frictionless modus operandi for neutralising conflict in the six northern counties and depoliticising the border.
The collapse of power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in the Northern Ireland executive has destabilised the situation, but the survival of the agreement ultimately relies on the willingness of the two states to cooperate across their borders. Could the bitterness of recent diplomatic exchanges about the future of the border after Brexit suggest that this marriage of convenience and the post-1998 dispensation it produced may not long survive in its present form after the removal of the stabilising framework of EU membership? l
1. There is an extensive literature on the peace process and the tortuous negotiations that produced the Good Friday agreement, but three books stand out. For an insider’s account, see J Powell Great hatred, little room: making peace in Northern Ireland London 2008. For a summary of the main events, there is B Hayes and I McAllister Conflict to peace: politics and society in Northern Ireland over half a century Manchester 2013. And for an academic outline of the methodology of peace processes see J Tonge Comparative peace processes Cambridge 2014.
2. S Wolff, ‘Between stability and collapse: internal and external dynamics of post-agreement institution-building in Northern Ireland’ The Global Review of Ethnopolitics September 2003.
3. Northern Ireland Office The future of Northern Ireland: a paper for discussion: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/hmso/nio1972.htm.
4. M Kerr The destructors: the story of Northern Ireland’s lost peace process Dublin 2011.
5. N Dorr The search for peace in Northern Ireland: Sunningdale Dublin 2017.
6. E O’Kane Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland: the totality of relationships London 2007.
7. The Observer April 12 1998.
8. R Alonso, ‘Pathways out of terrorism in Northern Ireland and the Basque country: the misrepresentation of the Irish model’: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/095465590898651.
9. T Blair, ‘Values and the power of community’, speech given at the University of Tübingen, June 30 2000: www.weltethos.org/dat-english/00_1-blair.htm.
10. For a summary of these rather tortuous events see ‘Devolved government in Northern Ireland’: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/government.htm.
11. See www.irishtimes.com/it-institutionalises-and-formalises-the-sectarian-division-which-gave-rise-to-the-violence-1.1355123; also www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/if-good-friday-agreement-can-t-deliver-stable-government-voters-must-be-told-1-8441440.
12. For a summary of social attitudes and measurements of “security, equality, political progress cohesion and sharing”, see the various Northern Ireland peace monitoring reports produced by Community Relations Council, covering the years 2012-17: www.community-relations.org.uk/publications/northern-ireland-peace-monitoring-report. For patterns of segregation see P Shirlow and B Murtagh Belfast: segregation, violence and the city London 2006.
14. K Bean, ‘Historic moment or business as usual?’ Weekly Worker March 9 2017. For further background to the conflict and peace process in Ireland please check the Weekly Worker and The Leninist archives: https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker.
15. K Bean, ‘Defeat as victory’ Weekly Worker April 12 2017.
16. For an account of how this process was achieved within the Provisional movement see K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007.
17. See, for example, section 1(ii) ‘Constitutional issues’ of the Good Friday agreement, which appears to uphold ideas of self-determination for “the people of the island of Ireland”, at the same time as acknowledging the unionist veto in the language of “consent”: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/136652/agreement.pdf. For an excellent account of how this worked between the British government and the Adams leadership, see J Powell Great hatred, little room: making peace in Northern Ireland London 2008. For the themes of political lying and choreography, see P Dixon, ‘There is nothing politically right that is morally wrong’ Irish Political Studies 2012 29:2, pp236-57.
18. P Hadaway, ‘Thou shalt not question the Good Friday agreement’ spiked April 17 2018.
19. For the full text see www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/136652/agreement.pdf.