Good Friday Agreement at 20: a reflection twenty years on
In the latest in a series of QPol articles marking the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Dr Peter McLoughlin reflects on how far Northern Ireland has come in the last 20 years and how much work is still to be done.
Twenty years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), it might seem that there is little to celebrate in Northern Ireland. The centrepiece of the accord, the power-sharing executive, has now been inoperative for over a year. Despite numerous rounds of talks during that time, the main parties on either side of the political divide have shown themselves incapable of achieving the compromises necessary to make power-sharing work.
However, the continued support for these parties suggests that the wider community also remains polarised on a whole range of issues – from Orange Order parades, to the importance of the Irish language. In physical terms, too, Northern Ireland remains a divided society. Though the GFA made commitments to mixed housing and integrated education, over 90 per cent of children still attend schools that are effectively segregated on religious lines, whilst a similarly high number of social housing estates are still single-identity (i.e. predominantly Catholic or Protestant).
There are significant financial as well as social costs to all this. Recent research suggests that issues like the duplication of services and the costs of policing communal division may extract an additional £833m per annum from the public purse. This is a price that Northern Ireland can ill afford, as the region still lags behind other parts of the UK on a range of economic measures.
In other ways, too, Northern Ireland compares unfavourably with the rest of the UK. For example, it is the only region where gay marriage and abortion are still prohibited. These might be seen as subjects of debate that should change the nature of politics in Northern Ireland, creating liberal or conservative alliances across the traditional communal divide. Instead, they have simply created new divisions along familiar lines, with nationalist parties generally supporting change, and unionists largely opposed.
This produces a particular irony for the GFA, which was designed specifically to protect minority rights, and particularly those of the Catholic community, as the historic minority who were once denied equality in fields such as employment and housing. Now the communal veto mechanisms that the GFA established to prevent future discrimination are being used to deny the rights of newly-visible minorities like the LGBT community. On top of all this, the already considerable challenge of delivering Brexit has been made more complex by the commitments of the GFA – leading senior advocates of the former to suggest abandoning the latter.
Despite these many and serious problems, the 20th anniversary of the GFA should also give cause to reflect on the achievements of the accord, and to view these in a proper political and historical context. Most obviously, the very fact that the accord has survived this long, despite a range of challenges during its early implementation, and the more recent difficulties, is a testament to its essential rectitude. The problems highlighted above are all significant. But many commentators use these to critique the current system without articulating any concrete political alternative that would win the broad cross-community assent that the GFA has continued to command. This does not mean that both communities have always been happy with how the accord has worked. That is the nature of political compromise – no party gets everything it wants. And the system that the GFA created is far from perfect – but then what political system is?
As such, criticism should be welcomed where it offers clear ideas as to how our political institutions might be improved – for example, perhaps changing the communal veto system to create a weighted majority mechanism that would still protect minorities, but without encouraging nationalist-unionist politicking over issues like LGBT rights. Political reform to help improve a given society should be the task of every generation. However, the idea that we can do this by abandoning the GFA ignores the fact that Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. Critics point to the continuation of such division as if it is the fault of the GFA, when in fact the accord has served to prevent the worst injustices and atrocities that this division previously created.
Serious sectarian division existed long before the GFA, and before even the establishment of Northern Ireland over 100 years ago. Indeed, such deep division took centuries to create; it will take at least decades to dissolve.
This does not mean that sectarian division will naturally wither as a result of the GFA. True reconciliation requires the active and continued efforts of each generation. But the GFA provides the most viable political framework for such efforts. It does this by creating the most widely accepted, democratic and equitable settlement that anyone has thus far conceived for the region. This is why we have peace and an essential stability in Northern Ireland, however imperfect.
It is the GFA that has provided a political context where non-sectarian issues like LGBT and women’s rights have become key issues of debate, where once they were wholly secondary to communal passions so powerful that they inspired a vicious and seemingly intractable conflict. The GFA has not wholly defused those passions – far from it. But it has created a means of accommodating and better managing stark communal differences. That is a huge achievement in historic terms, and one we should not forget. Neither should we feel that society in Northern Ireland today is the best we can hope for.
The 20th anniversary of the GFA should give cause to reflect on how far we have come, and how much work is still yet to be done.