“The GFA fuelled hopes that that there would finally be a righting of the historic wrong of partitioning Ireland in 1921 against the wishes of 70% of the population. This hope remains but so do the obstacles the British state, & its accomplices, are likely to erect in its path.”
By Geoff Bell and Nadine Finch
Before and after Easter, politicians from the USA, Europe – including Ireland – and the UK have been gathering together and separately to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that did bring peace to Ireland after thirty years of armed conflict.
The GFA was the culmination of years of negotiations and political struggle on the island of Ireland, within the Irish diaspora and beyond. It ended the violence caused by British colonial rule and its resistance to Irish self-determination. But it was only a step on the road to a final peace. There was also with the prospect of a new politics across Britain and Ireland, a commitment to consensus working in Northern Ireland, increasing cooperation between the two parts of Ireland and a benign British presence.
Such new politics have not emerged in a uniform manner. There has been social and economic progress, noticeably more in the southern state. Religion is not as dominant as it once was, more young people share cultural and social aspirations. In addition, the population across the island is now much more diverse, as the island welcomes migrants to its shores. Few in Ireland today want to go back to violence.
But a key concept of the GFA, namely “power-sharing” in the Northern Ireland Assembly has faltered, most recently with unionist parties not accepting the popular vote returning a Sinn Fein First Minister. Nor are cross-border institutions established by the GFA currently meeting. While the major unionist party, the DUP, have blamed this on the consequences of a Brexit they supported in the referendum, the fact is that unionists, and especially the DUP, have a long history of disrupting power-sharing, as well as the cultural and social equality the GFA also prescribed.
The present Westminster government is also threatening other provisions of the GFA which underpinned the cessation of hostilities. It has already left the European Union and therefore removed a major basis for economic and social co-operation between the population north and south of the border. It is now threatening to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and has introduced ‘legacy’ legislation which seeks to declare an amnesty for past crimes – including those committed by agents of the British state – and to prevent investigations into those crimes – especially those committed by British agents. This reneges on pledges made by the British state throughout the peace process and reiterated as late as 2019 and is opposed by all parties in Northern Ireland.
The major unionist party, the DUP, is presently debating whether to give new life to the GFA and return to power sharing. Whatever they eventually decided will not be determined by the principles of the GFA, which they opposed 25 years ago and have never explicitly endorsed since. Rather, it will be decided by how they read opinion within their unionist community. They know that all unionist leaders of the last 50 years, who have been seen to compromise too much on reforming political structures in Northern Ireland, have eventually been overthrown by their own community. The DUP came to power on the basis of their original opposition to the GFA and they read the most recent opinion poll showing a majority of unionists would not vote for it today.
The Tories hope that their recent negotiations with the EC and the consequential Windsor Framework will reassure the DUP, but, not surprisingly many DUP members and supporters do not trust the current British government and may slowly be beginning to understand that the British state has a very long history of abandoning ‘settler’ communities after they are no longer of use to it.
The more general difficulty with the GFA is an ambiguity which has aways been there.
On the one hand it said, “it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement with the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right to self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, Northern and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.”
On the other hand, Britain has retained and has exerted its sovereignty over Northern Ireland, even to the extent of suspending the GFA’s operation. Indeed, early on, in 2000, Peter Mandelson, when Northern Ireland Secretary of State, suspended the Assembly and the executive, in a dispute over weapon decommissioning and to support the then unionists’ leader David Trimble, who was facing an internal revolt over his endorsement of the GFA.
Today, British sovereignty remains. For example, it refuses to discuss a border poll, another GFA commitment. Twenty-five years ago, the prospect of a border poll will have seemed distant and the criteria and timing for moving towards a poll has always been unclear. How will a British Secretary of State decide that a majority have indicated that a border poll is necessary? Who will be permitted to vote in such a poll? 16 – 17 year olds? Newly arrived immigrants? Irish nationals who have had to emigrate for employment? Will either of the major British parties hold a border poll if it does not benefit them politically?
There is always the strong suspicion that in answering such question Britain will put its own interests first. The example of Brexit is there: Britain exercised its sovereignty over Northern Ireland by imposing Brexit, a decision taken against the wishes of the Northern Irish majority, and one that has widened differences and increased tensions within Northern Ireland.
Ironically, Brexit has also had the unintended consequence of strengthening Irish nationalists and, in particular, Sinn Féin. Their internationalism and economic and social policies are attracting many young and other voters. Their views are not dissimilar to many civic society groups, such as Ireland’s Future, who are debating the building of a more equal 32-county Ireland. Both understand that the island of Ireland’s future lies within international alliances of states, albeit not perfect, rather than dictated to by an isolationist and failing former power.
The GFA fuelled hopes that that there would finally be a righting of the historic wrong of partitioning Ireland in 1921 against the wishes of 70 per cent of the population. This hope remains but so do the obstacles the British state, and its accomplices, are likely to erect in its path. The need for solidarity has rarely been stronger.