As we rapidly approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), I think its important to consider what the most optimistic in 1998 must have thought that Northern Irish society would look like 20 years later. Even those who retain a slice of that optimism would likely admit that things have not quite turned out as planned.
The anniversary comes as the GFA is faces unprecedented threats; one is an internal issue, namely the failure of Stormont and inability to put together an executive, and one is an external matter, Brexit. Indeed, the agreement is frequently cited as a major factor in the Brexit negotiations, acting as a bulwark to a ‘Hard Brexit’ which would jeopardise the open border in Ireland. This explains why we have seen in recent months criticisms of the Good Friday Agreement from right wing elements on the UK mainland, including the supposed Conservative intellectual Dan Hannan and the reactionary Labour MP Kate Hoey. In response to these attacks, many from the North and beyond leapt to the defence of the GFA across social media platforms. Of course, it is important to defend the agreement from right wing attack from British nationalists who have no particular care for the interests of those who actually live here. But some of the arguments for the Good Friday Agreement have strayed troublingly close to hagiography of a document and process that most admit is imperfect, while very few actually articulate why.
The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is being slated by many as a time for reflection. But to me, reflection does not just mean thinking back to how great everyone felt when the document was signed. It means looking back on the last twenty years, the positives and negatives, and tracing how they evolved from 1998. It means having a genuinely critical appraisal about the peace process. After all, we are continually told that it is under threat. So, what did the Good Friday Agreement do? It was a hallmark of the end of violence after three and a half decades of the Troubles. It put the main parties of unionism and nationalism into the same agreement, establishing the NI Assembly and the NI Executive as institutions. It also established an agreement between the British and Irish governments that effectively settled the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as well as establishing a mechanism for it to be changed. With this came a raft of inter-governmental and cross -border institutions designed to strengthen relationships and to encourage cooperation. These are obviously significant developments. But with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, we can also look back and observe what the Good Friday Agreement and the wider peace process did not do.
We can clearly see now that the peace process did not solve the issue of deep-rooted political division in Northern Ireland. We have not seen the emergence of the ‘normal’ nominal left-right politics as one would expect in a liberal democracy. Indeed, over the last two years we have seen an increased polarisation as voters have moved towards Sinn Fein and the DUP. This can be explained away by being an outgrowth of factors external to the peace process itself; Brexit, the RHI scandal etc. But the fact that both of those issues were effectively sectarianised and that voters returned to the totemic parties of nationalism and unionism in greater numbers even after ten dysfunctional and abject years in government says a lot about the polarisation that still exists.
It is clear however that there have been significant changes in Northern Irish society over the past twenty years. One only has to look at my own city of Belfast to observe how different it is today than in 1998, let alone at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s. Effectively, the city has underwent a process of gentrification the likes of which we have seen across most major cities in the west. Through the influx of large capital development, Belfast has transformed into a city of luxury hotels, large glass tower apartment blocks, modern office spaces, high-end restaurants and cocktail bars and an endless litany of coffee shops. The North has also become home to major Hollywood productions, most notably providing a backdrop to HBO’s massively successful Game of Thrones series. These developments have worked in tandem with a concerted drive to make NI a tourist destination and one can frequently see touring groups and cruise ship passengers being guided around the city. But this development has been greatly uneven. NI has the third highest number of millionaires per region in the UK, coming behind only London and Aberdeen. So its clear that some have done extraordinarily well out of the peace process. But we have also seen a massive crisis of social deprivation in the region. More people have taken their own lives in the 20 years since the GFA than were killed during the Troubles. There is a severe shortage of social housing in areas of Belfast and a huge regional imbalance in investment between east and west. This is a legacy not just of the conflict, but of the peace process.
The focus on international investment was central to the discourse around the Good Friday Agreement and the wider peace process. This pertains the ‘peace dividend’ that was promised to the people of Northern Ireland upon the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Stephen Baker and Greg McLaughlin identify Bill Clinton’s promise of $100 million of investment and Richard Branson’s visit to Belfast before the referendum as signifiers of this. But as capital development, in Belfast at least, continues apace, many in neglected communities have been left to wonder when they will see anything of a ‘peace dividend.’ Meanwhile, politics here remains in stasis. We still have no government. We still lag behind the rest of the UK when it comes to LGBT rights and bodily autonomy for women. And people have not yet prepared themselves for the inevitability of continued austerity should an executive ever be put in place. Meanwhile, the media in Northern Ireland continues to perpetuate a culture wars narrative through sensationalising sensitive issues and seeking to place them into an orange and green binary. As Alex Kane points out, there is no shared narrative about what actually happened here between 1968-1998. We have seen no actual resolution from the Troubles but instead constant symbolic relitigating through the media. In essence, it is war by other means. As Baker told me on The Last Round’s podcast towards the end of last year, the peace process represented Northern Ireland’s integration into global capitalism. To do that, it seems increasingly as if we side-lined our problems and brushed the legacy of the conflict under the carpet rather than embrace the far more difficult task of conflict resolution.
The Good Friday agreement was probably Tony Blair’s greatest achievement as Prime Minister and, like Blairism itself, it is a clear product of the neoliberal turn in global capitalism two decades prior. Twenty years on and neoliberalism is a system in crisis. It looks increasingly shaky on its foundations as the vast inequalities it produces become ever more clear. As others across the world seek their own political alternatives to this system, perhaps it is time for us to use this moment to do the same. All of this is not to say that the Good Friday Agreement was not a crucial moment in the history of both the UK and Ireland, nor that it is not infinitely better to have grown up largely in a time of peace than of conflict. But while twenty years later it is something to look back on, it is also something we need to move beyond.
Conor McFall is a PhD researcher in History at QUB. He is also on the editorial team of The Last Round.