Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, you could be forgiven for thinking our politics has fallen back to pre-1998 standards, with political parties still selling the “radical” politics of pursuing either a new Ireland or an ever-stronger union with the UK through a hard Brexit. With both these goals eternally incompatible, we are seemingly mired in political stalemate.
But the radical politics is this: tackling the barriers that divide us, throwing them aside and working together; tearing down the walls of division, brick by brick; identifying as a united community instead of separate and divided communities; stepping forward as one community to tackle the toxic legacy of years of conflict; paramilitarism, sectarianism and segregation.
We seem to be content to rest on the laurels of the Good Friday Agreement and display it on the shelf of history along with the other numerous agreements, St Andrew’s, Stormont House and the February 2018 agreement that never was.
Like a compilation of instruction manuals, they remain half-read and partially implemented, tossed aside whenever we think we can make things work without following the instructions and give up because it’s too hard. But like anything worth having, peace is hard work. Hard to achieve. Hard to maintain.
Those who don’t appreciate the hard work, the collective blood, sweat and tears over many generations, that were poured into the peace process and the Agreement itself are not only burying their head in the sand, but are turning their face against perhaps one of the most lauded successes in modern peace building and denying the positive, often life-changing, transformation of this place. It cannot be emphasised enough how incredibly important that was.
The Good Friday Agreement was an opportunity to transform our politics and provided the foundation to build a better place for us all, a place where everyone was respected, valued and welcomed, historic wrongs would be righted, those who lost their lives would be remembered with reverence, those hurt, injured and maimed by the conflict would be looked after, not left to fend for themselves and fight their own lonely battles. And yet, we haven’t delivered on this.
We laid the foundations of peace, but the peace we’ve built is a long way from the blueprint drawn up in 1998. We’ve peace, but on a piecemeal basis; justice, for those who are able to get it, served on an individual basis; communities who are still in the throes of ongoing paramilitary coercive control, having to negotiate their peace with malevolent forces; lives half lived with young people offered up to terrible fates at the hands of gunmen in a skewed system of domineering terror, masquerading as alternative justice; those victims and survivors injured in our indiscriminate, selfish, dirty conflict reduced to pleading for support so they can just about get by; and the bereaved still fighting for truth and justice.
Since the inception of Northern Ireland, it has been taken as read that our politics must be divided in terms of identity - a persistent pattern that has emerged and has stayed with us. Instead of growing out of binary identity politics, the division has become entrenched.
Brexit has polarised us even more, putting the constitutional issue back on the table. It exposed the frailty of the foundations on which we built the peace. It exposed the wavering commitment to a shared future.
Nationalists and Unionists extolled the virtues of a shared society and unshackling ourselves from the chains of segregation, talking a good game about the importance of educating our kids together, living together including through the development of shared housing, all whilst their practices silently entrenched division and received tacit approval and validation through the ballot box.
This is where we need to challenge ourselves, our friends or our family. Did we expect to see segregation embedded in our society and our politics 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement? Did we expect to see such widespread and blanket support for policies and parties that are adamant in their difference and committed to segregation? Did we expect government on a basis of one for my community, one for yours in administrations beset by allegations of corruption, cronyism and clientelism?
From the ecstatic highs of April 1998 with the world at our feet, I don’t think April 2018 is what we really envisioned. We must ask ourselves; what have we done to show our support for a shared Northern Ireland, to support reconciliation and to challenge the binary politics of this place that are eternally incompatible.
I say we, because it isn’t just up to politicians to transform this place. It takes people; to turn a phrase on its head, “everyone has their part to play”.
We have to learn to live with each other, not despite of each other- not just paying lip service to the ideals of integration and reconciliation and not following through, but challenging ourselves, demanding more and ultimately letting our politics be governed by hope and not fear. Our fortunes and futures are not just intertwined but are dependent on our ability to come together as a united community. Because here’s the rub. In either a united Ireland or a divided Northern Ireland with a majoritarian singular focus on the Union, we’re still left looking at each other with suspicion, querying each other’s motives, jealously guarding our differences.
Arlene Foster’s remarks about leaving Northern Ireland in the event of unification demonstrate this. The six counties, this province, will still exist; issues of legacy will still exist. Unionism will still exist and be as diametrically opposed to nationalism. And, as we know, Nationalism doesn’t cease to exist within a Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
We will have a reality of segregated schools, housing and even leisure pursuits. A line on a map doesn’t absolve us from the uncomfortable, uneasy conversations that we need to have about our past, to provide support for victims and survivors, to rid ourselves of the remnants of the poison of paramilitarism or the need to embed a culture of lawfulness.
We rightly call out poor leadership and, rightly, expect high standards from our politicians. We can talk about how the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t perfect, how it institutionalised sectarianism, how it entrenched two monolithic blocs. But to do so is to absolve ourselves from any responsibility for empowering, enabling and being the change we want to see.
There are many courageous and brave people in this place who have always stepped forward and stepped up to challenge the politics of fear and division. Those who articulate and demonstrate a commitment to a united community and perhaps more importantly, those who cast their vote for a united community are taking that courageous step.
It is the easiest thing to sell identity politics, to sell a binary, reductive choice. It isn’t so easy to extend a hand of friendship and support knowing that it may be slapped away, derided as naïve and out of touch, as a “do-gooder”, to dismiss a united community as not representing anything and wanting our society to be homogenised.
But that is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is to believe in a united community. Despite the fear, the pain, the hurt, it takes guts to reject the easy path and familiarity of strength in identity. For both Nationalism and Unionism, there are songs, emblems, groups, traditions and many sections of civic society that can be utilised to drum up support for their identity politics.
It is nothing if not radical to sell an idea with no other emblem or value other than unity, hope and trust. To sell a vision with no other props than the lived, shared experience of what it is to see the destructive forces of division and hate and say, “let’s do this together”. To sell a vision with integration, reconciliation and healing at it’s heart. To see the pain and feel the hurt and vow to work as one to continue that incredibly important work of building the peace. And we must continue that work. Because nobody else can do it for us and it can’t be done in isolation. Only we can do that.
Senator George Mitchell recently remarked at the Alliance Party Conference that the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t just an end goal, but the start of a journey. We started this journey together, let’s not only continue it together, but finish it together as a united community.
Sorcha Eastwood is a Brexit Adviser and Executive member of the Alliance Party.