If you have seen the beautifully nostalgic ‘Derry Girls’ then you have a fair idea of what my life was like in April 1998. I was 16 and although I knew who all the grey haired (mostly) men talking to the TV cameras from Stormont were, they seemed far removed from me and my life which, at that time, revolved around balancing studying for my GCSEs with my part-time job and dancing in Lavery’s on a Saturday night. The atmosphere at school was buzzing but that had more to do with the U2 concert in the then brand-new Waterfront Hall than the possibility of peace. We had heard it all before. Our youth was littered with failed talks and broken ceasefires, so why would this time any different?
The passing of time saw politics become my passion and with that came a true understanding and appreciation for the scale of achievement represented by Good Friday; a shining moment in the history of this place I call home when, for the first time in living memory, our politicians delivered something for the good of us all.
Together, piece by piece, they assembled the jigsaw of Good Friday without a picture on the box for reference. They challenged old sectarian taboos and archaic ways of thinking, with the middle parties putting their collective weight behind the agreement to push Good Friday across the finish line, making history in the process. We applauded with pride when the Nobel Prizes were awarded, reveling in the newfound prosperity of peace. Life was good and hopes for the future high.
The Northern Ireland where I grew up was a broken limb, Nationalism and Unionism two shards of bone lying painfully far apart and subjecting us all to crippling pain. Good Friday was a plaster cast designed to stabilise our shattered, sectarian bones long enough to allow the middle to fuse, a plate to let the limb heal by bridging the gap between the estranged aspects of our community. It had just as much to do with empowering the middle as it did mitigating the extremes; Good Friday was about giving normality the space to take root and flourish.
Sadly, as our current reality clearly shows, this opportunity has been squandered. The culpability of Sinn Fein and the DUP in the degradation of our politics has been much discussed but we don’t like to talk about the failure of the middle to prevent it. It is a cruel pain to realise that the very people responsible for giving us the hope of Good Friday in the first place were instrumental in removing it.
The 44% of voters who did not vote for Sinn Fein or the DUP at the last election are split between ten different political parties or independents. Rather than working to present the electorate with a cohesive alternative to sectarian politics, the party machines of the centre have put the protection of themselves and their own little fiefdoms ahead of our future. They talk repeatedly of the need for cooperation but, when it comes down to risking the little they have in order to work together to build an inclusive, progressive and widely representative politics, we see little in the way of action.
Today, our centre vote is more thinly spread than ever and the consequences are obvious. Like the guide poles of a collapsing circus tent, Sinn Fein and DUP drew closer together at the top as the parties in the middle worked only to distance themselves from one another, fundamentally weakening their own strength as well as the integrity of the overall democratic structure; by remaining divided, they conquered themselves. One only has to look at Emma Little-Pengelly’s victory for the DUP in South Belfast last year to see how the weak middle negatively impacts on effective democratic representation.
This lack of vision now means that the 44% of people who voted for parties other than Sinn Fein and the DUP are missing from the discourse. The supporters of central parties are now voiceless; they are not being heard at the Stormont talks, they are shut out of Brexit and silent on social issues. I’ve lost count of the number of times representatives from these parties have appeared on TV in the past year, watery-eyed and wringing their hands about how very unfair the situation their inaction allowed to metastasise has become; their lack of self-awareness upsetting to those of us who had pinned our futures on their ability to see beyond the end of their noses.
I never anticipated that on the anniversary of Good Friday, I would be writing about how the hope it encapsulated has been wasted and yes, I am angry. I never expected that two decades on from my teenage years we would still be living in a segregated society. That, just as in the powerful final scene of Derry Girls, this generation is still having to get on with their lives in spite of our politics, rather than being empowered by them. Good Friday was a beginning, not an end to the work required to normalise Northern Ireland. Twenty years on, it’s time that work was started in earnest by those on whom its success relies most.
An historian by training, Barbara now works in media in Belfast. A passionate proponent for common sense, she is a regular commentator on radio, TV and Twitter.