Good Friday Agreement at 16: politicians must do better


Good Friday 1998 was a day of hope. After thirty years of violence, a new day seemed to be dawning as politicians embraced, then inked an agreement which held out the promise of lasting peace.

As the Agreement turns sixteen, it is timely to check the politicians’ school report card to see if their implementation of the deal merits a high-flying A* or a lowly E.

Sixteen years on, although the gunmen are more than a shadow, they have proved themselves incapable of derailing a widespread commitment to peace and politics. But sustainable peace has to be more than the mere absence of violence.

Beyond this (not inconsiderable) achievement, the picture starts to look more mixed. Little has been achieved by way of bringing down the barriers that separate – and I don’t mean just the physical ones. Our divided politicians have set their ambitions too low, their vision too narrow.

In terms of ensuring accountable government, all too often people must resort to Stephen Nolan, so meagre are the actual checks and balances on power. Edwin Poots’ u-turn on the closure of old people’s homes was brought about by 93 year-old Jean Faulkner going on the radio, rather than being able to petition power via the Civic Forum and or challenge power via a Bill of Rights. Both these mechanisms are in the Agreement, but those in power have binned the former and blocked the latter.

On dealing with the past, the Agreement was regrettably vague, reflecting its status as ‘too hot to handle’. Many bereaved and injured still find themselves no closer to justice or truth. This week’s intervention by Theresa Villiers was, sadly, little more than the latest case of a politician with one eye on the history books and other eye losing sight of the rights of victims and the needs of wider society.

As the Belfast Agreement turns sixteen, so much remains undone or undelivered that it is no surprise that Richard Haass last month told a US government committee that the Northern Ireland peace model was not currently “fit for export”.

The politicians’ report card on implementing the Agreement: must do better!


Published in the Belfast Telegraph, April 18 2014