…that the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
10th April 1998. It seems like yesterday but it is actually closer to one third of my life.
Good Friday just happened to be the day that it was signed. There were intense negotiations all week at Stormont. The comings and goings, rumours of breakthrough and rumours of breakdown all week.
When we drove to work on that Friday morning, it seemed that it was make or break. In my (maybe faulty) recollection, we drove into the car park at my wife’s work in West Belfast and a BBC Norn Iron reporter broke the news. There was finally an agreement. It was about 8..45am.
My wife and I embraced each other. And although it seems like a line from “Blackadder Goes Forth”, I said…”we lived thru it”.
When we got home after lunch (Good Friday not being a full working day) the Agreement had still not formally been signed. It WAS signed during the afternoon. But it was already apparent that unionists were unhappy. Some like Jeffrey Donaldson had walked out.
To some extent, the DUP protests and the UUP unhappiness confirmed that the nationalists had won and the unionists had lost. Even in Agreements, victory is important.
Some weeks later on the same day, Ireland voted on the decision. In the Republic of Ireland, 93% said “YES”. In Norn Iron…was it 74%(?) who said “YES” but within the northern stats it was apparent that 93% nationalists had said “YES” but maybe only 55% of unionists had said “YES”.
To be honest, back in 1998, I was glad…it seemed to confirm nationalist victory and unionist defeat. But on reflection, this was the beginning of the process where the Agreement would be unravelled.
It doesn’t really matter what was in the Agreement. Power Sharing. The Republic recognising the constitutional position of Norn Iron, doing “something” for victims, police reform, decommissioning of illegal weapons, prisoner release.
The important thing was Peace. No more Brits. No more Shankill Butchers and other loyalist murderers. No more IRA car bombs.
And we kinda settled in to Stormont being led by UUP on the unionist side and SDLP on the nationalist side.
But the UUP were in a weak position. David Trimble was not exactly a charming person. And his increasingly hysterical calls that the unionist community needed “reassurance and confidence building measures” really only made Sinn Féin stick the boot in. Sinn Féin had the savvy to move at the speed of the slowest horse in their troop. Thus they ensured that only a small minority of the IRA defected to the sabre-rattling dissidents.
Thus “not a bullet, not an ounce” …a reference to decommissioning weapons was a common graffiti in nationalist areas. Trimble was spinning on a roast with the handles being turned by Sinn Féin and DUP.
SDLP efforts to help Trimble encouraged Sinn Féin that SDLP would sell out. The British and Irish governments were undermining SDLP and UUP as their civil servants realised that Seamus Mallon (who succeeded John Hume) and David Trimble had nothing to deliver.
Getting the Agreement was one thing. Delivering the Agreement was another thing. In truth , close examination of the Agreement made it impossible to deliver.
It was sold to nationalists as stepping stones to a united Ireland. It was sold to unionists as obstacles to a united Ireland. It is possible that someone was telling the truth. Maybe nobody was telling the truth. Certainly both sides could not be right.
The buzz-phrase of the time was “Creative Ambiguity”. Curiously in 1998, the architects of the Good Friday Agreement celebrated that phrase. But rejoicing in ambiguity is eventually untenable.
Thus we did get Power Sharing. But UUP and SDLP were losing ground to their DUP and Sinn Féin rivals and within a few years the second unionist and nationalist parties had eclipsed their rivals. The new dominant players were Rev Ian Paisley (Peter Robinson and later Arlene Foster) and Gerry Adams (Martin McGuinness and later Michelle O’Neill).
As of April 2018, UUP and SDLP are pathetic shadows of former greatness.
Victims? Ah Victims….we were told that something would be done. But “victims” are not a single group. There are victims on both sides who have endured much and are glad that nobody else has to suffer. And there are angry embittered victims. On both sides. They feel that their suffering was in vain. I make no judgement. I lost friends as we all did. But nobody so close that I can feel that degree of personal pain.
Really the victims were played. The Brits, the RUC and its successor (the PSNI) and the IRA played for time. There was talk about a South African-style Truth Commission. Frankly the Brits and IRA don’t want it known just how dirty and squalid the civil war had become. The files in the British archives will remain firmly closed. And the mouths of gunmen and bombers will be firmly closed.
For it has been calculated …rightly if not morally…that there are 1,800,000 people live in Norn Iron and only 500,000 have any real experience of the Troubles. And each year our children and grandchildren enjoy the Peace and are more distant from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Police Reform. We got it. Albeit in a bizarre war. The disgraced Royal Ulster Constabulary were given a medal…the George Cross (just like the British colony of Malta in WW2) and then “honourably” stood down. The rank and file were given very generous pensions and resigned. And a new fairer Police Service of Norn Iron was established.
Therefore the great act of betrayal of RUC (as unionists saw it) was softened by a shiny medal and hard cash. For nationalists, the discredited force had been consigned to the dustbin of History.
I like the PSNI. I like “community police officers”. I like the better religious and (almost more importantly) better gender balance. Starting a 21st century police service is its own reward….an end to the canteen culture of casual sectarianism, casual racism, casual homophobia and casual sexism. A police service without baggage is as welcome in Coalisland, County Tyrone as it is in Selma, Alabama.
Decommissioning? We got it. But of course we paid a price. The fact that yesterday …yesterday!!!! three illegal loyalist organisations could hold a press conference to announce that they now supported the rule of law tells its own story. They still exist. They are not prosecuted for membership. They are heavily involved in gangsterism.
Do the IRA exist? Well …we are told “no” but its apparent that organised ex-prisoners have an input into Sinn Féin decisions. And is there republican gangsterism in terms of smuggling, money laundering, illegal oil?
Prisoner Release? The unionists were told no amnesty. And yet it later emerged that many ex-prisoners are carrying letters assuring them that they are beyond prosecution.
Crucially for the discredited Conflict Resolution industry, letsgetalongerists and liberal unionists….there have been no real advances in normalising Society. Our Peace Walls divide communities, there is minimal integrated education and few nationalists are finding their inner Britishness. And ….people vote DUP and Sinn Féin.
I don’t see this as a major problem. Roll on BREXIT. Roll on Re-Allignment.
What has the Good Friday Agreement done for us? Well………..Peace obviously. But it has also allowed us to maximise our sense of Irishness (in my case) or possibly Britishness (in your case) without embracing any notion of a shared identity.
I consider that to be a triumph…an unintended one.
Thus Senator George Mitchell arrives here today. He will deliver some platitudes.
So does Bill Clinton…once a hero that my wife and children cheered when they switched on the Christmas lights in Belfast. Let’s hope that none of our feminists are waving “Me Too” placards tomorrow.
And Bertie Ahern will maybe show up. He is now damaged goods also.
And maybe Tony B Liar will show up. And if he thinks its the “hand of history” on his shoulder, it might be the hand of the Law wanting to discuss Iraq and all those other lies. Or was it just Creative Ambiguity.