12 April 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement this week enjoyed a significant if not predominant place in the pronouncements of politicians and the focus of the media.

As the world watches warily if not altogether seriously the bellicose posturing of North Korea (on which a former member of our staff provides an illuminating close-quarters insight in our pages this week), and the substantial and profoundly divisive legacy of Margaret Thatcher is dissected in the aftermath of her passing, it is understandable that what is a humble enough landmark in historic terms in the life of the Belfast accord has been rivalled for analysis and attention.

However, it seems particularly important for the people of both parts of this country – those of our Border circulation area most especially, perhaps – to give some serious thought at this time to how far peace building on our island has been taken, and how much further and in what direction the journey must continue.

Perhaps the agreement’s most compelling bequest is that there is an emerging generation of Irish people whose memories of the protracted and often fraught circumstances of the negotiations that led to the endorsement of the document are but vague, and whose formation has not been etched with direct experience of the enmity and often murderous violence it was designed to end.

These children of the peace process have a precious inheritance. With it comes a heavy responsibility: constructing a society that enshrines lastingly the aspirations that form the complex weave of subtext to the principles set out in the formal language of the Agreement’s terms.
What was the common, pressing wish for the Good Friday Agreement has been substantially achieved – a climate of peace predominates, albeit one periodically punctured by the remnants of paramilitary criminality and patches of violent civil unrest.

The power-sharing assembly established at Stormont has given democratic expression to the principles of the accord. It functions not entirely smoothly but enjoys broad civil acceptance as an administrative mechanism – it other words it operates as systems of government are wont to do in most stable democratic societies, implicitly endorsed if often complained about by a viable majority of the people it serves.

Violence has not been banished from Northern Ireland and its political life has imperfections – but the progress made in these areas has been extraordinary in many respects in the context of what went before, and has been sufficiently stabilising to facilitate noteworthy economic and social progress in some areas.

A trend of foreign investment in the North economy has begun and is being fostered by substantial stimulus measures such as the Invest NI initiative. Enterprise agencies in our own area are hopefully watching the pattern of this investment closely to identify potential cross-Border partnerships and business alliances that might arise – communities in Co Monaghan that suffered decline as a result of the Troubles might secure a regenerative dividend from such developments.
The ground is certainly now more fertile for the growth of better cross-Border relations, and this county has been to the forefront in the early planting.

Progress in the cultural realm has been particularly good – many laudable projects have been put in place to foster a better mutual understanding of the religious and political traditions that for so long divided us. Businesses on both sides of the Border profit from the freer flow of trade and greater social interaction is reviving some of the human links sundered by the conflict. Stronger local authority bonds are also in the process of being forged.

The painful compromises and tentative trust that provided the foundation for the Good Friday Agreement have produced much progress, but in many respects the work is only just beginning.
Some among the new generation of Irish people, the inheritors of the bounty and the burden of the Belfast accord, are unequally privileged in their ability to accept and carry on the legacy.

Some are still coming to maturity in sharply sectarian environments, and are being indoctrinated in intolerance at an early age.

A recent survey found that there are now more so-called ‘peace walls’ – physical divisions between antagonistic communities – in the urban landscape of the North than existed before April 10 1998.

The perpetuation of its society’s physical and cultural apartheid poses major challenges for the Stormont Executive.

The development of a fully integrated system of education is one possible counteractive strategy which as yet remains chronically underformed – and inadequate to meet the formidable task of dealing with difference it is faced with.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that: “The Belfast Agreement was the platform to build a new, confident, inclusive and modern Northern Ireland, whose best days lie ahead. While we have come a long way, much remains to be done.”

To give expression to his evident sincerity, Mr Cameron might wish to review his Government’s recent decision to drastically cut the capital budget available to the North Executive – money that would enable it to begin carrying out the programme of infrastructural renewal that might improve the housing and social conditions of the larger population centres in a way that would counter the sense of disconnect and neglect that feeds the insular sectarian instinct of some communities.

Given the deliberate lack of investment by the British Government in Northern Ireland over the course of the Troubles, it would be an aggravated injury for capital development programmes there to be curtailed for economic reasons at this crucial time – and certainly a policy decision incompatible with the Prime Minister’s assessment of the Good Friday Agreement’s importance.

Ultimately, as Martin McGuinness told Sinn Féin’s recent Easter Commemoration in Dublin, the biggest endangerment to the peace process is complacency.

Mr McGuinness was directing his remarks at the British and Irish Governments and speaking in the context of ongoing militaristic and flag protest activity in the North, but his caution has a more universal application, to the stake we all hold as Irish people in preserving the principles animating the agreement we signed up to 15 years ago.

We should never forget, and always remind that important emerging generation, that peace is forever a work in progress.

Comments are closed.