The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has undoubtedly been the cornerstone of the North’s peace and stability and as we approach its 20th Anniversary its absence in Local Government is felt more than ever. In a time of such toxic politics, divided people, and scandal after scandal, the GFA’s embodiment of the spirit of partnership and reconciliation is needed now more than ever.
It seems many look at the GFA as something to honour and protect, like a trophy on your mantelpiece as oppose to a political machine to challenge, minimise and fix the problems we have face today. Some of these problems are becoming somewhat insurmountable for young people today; Brexit, Homelessness, not to mention picking up the pieces of our NHS and polluted environment.
However, the elephant in the room; a series of stalemate and breakdowns and at this rate we need to accept (and remind ourselves of) the fact that it’s not the spirit of power-sharing which has failed. It’s the political parties who dominate its government.
Does the GFA facilitate such a basis for partnership and reconciliation not just for the generations that endorsed it but for the generations to come?
Do the two largest parties which dominate its executive share the same vision?
In a time of stalemate, wood-pellets, loafs of bread and crocodiles, it's hard to find a path of reason, but there's no voice of more expertise in the Agreement than Mark Durkan who notes the agreements power in challenging Brexit in Ireland:
“As the Brexit negotiations intensify, it’s welcome that the EU27 have continued to voice a strong commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. It’s critical, however, that such a commitment extends to protecting it in its promise and potential as well.
The full potential and flexibility of Strands Two and Three must be harnessed to protect and preserve relationships across this island and across these islands. It is the full prospectus of Strand Two for enabling, developing and delivering cooperation, common policies and actions including through joint implementation for mutual cross-border and all-island benefit which needs to be safeguarded and even nurtured in the coming negotiations."
Not a bad toolkit, eh? However, it's not perfect.
It's problems lie is the fact that it never foreseen the decrease in power of the moderate parties in the NI Assembly. As well as this, unlike the American Constitution, when first crafted, the GFA didn't foresee a new world and generation of politics in less than 20 years time. Throughout the history of the US Constitution 27 changes have been made to the
amendment process. For NI we see simply a small, yet half-hearted, step up with the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start. Although, once again, the mechanisms to implement change are already there, what’s missing is a progressive and willing spirit of the dominant parties.
Where to start?
Firstly, we NEED to reform the petition of concern. At the time, its creators couldn’t imagine an abuse of the petition of concern where the DUP have used it essentially as a One-Party Veto to block legislation, most notoriously on the issue of Equal Marriage. (Not that you should have to imagine simply allowing democratic votes to pass to grant same sex couples the right to get married...)
Although what is further frustrating is that only recently some other parties have made their calls for a reform public, after years and years of abuse. And if we don't reform this mechanism, who's rights do we oppress next? Trans rights? Women's right to choose? Ethnic minority rights?
Let's not forget in this mess, we have an Island of young people awaiting and in need of progressive politics. We already see a disengagement with politics from young people in the 18-24 age range and even more so in the 16-17 age range. (probably because politicians don’t event grant them with the right vote).
So in an agreement that's been abandoned, these young people are also abandoned once again. But those who have abandoned the agreement now don’t appreciate the spilling of sweat over many generations from all communities and all walks of life that were poured into the peace process and the Agreement itself. They are not only on the wrong side of history, but are turning their noses up to one of the most successful political creations Ireland has ever seen and, in modern times, to deny building bridges and not borders, as well as the overwhelmingly positive transformation of the North is a disgrace. A disgrace to this island, its people and especially its youth.
The Good Friday Agreement and restoration of our institutions is the only opportunity to progressively transform our politics and provide the foundation to deliver the much needed change for every citizen of this island. This delivery should allow everyone to be without any shadow of a doubt or confidence: respected; appreciated and embraced in our society. Through time, historic wrongs would be righted and not rewritten, those hurt, injured or traumatised by the conflict would be cared for and not left at the back of the bus.
As well as this, those who find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder will be protected now and not in the hands of the British Tory party who only know one word - cuts. To allow Northern Ireland and its people to be in the hands of unelected, unwanted and inhumane austerity is a betrayal of the agreement and its very principle. So I look to another documentation which many on this island turn to as well as the GFA which states "cherish all the children equally". But how can a parent take care of her child when she isn't granted a home to live in? How can a child get a decent education when they're in the hands of accountants and civil servants? How can an ill child receive proper medical treatment when they're seen as a number on a waiting list?
This is the reality of an absence of government.
This is the reality of abandoning the Good Friday Agreement.
This is the reality in the North.
Now, more than ever, we need a return to power-sharing, a return to the principle of reconciliation and partnership and now is the time to use the Good Friday Agreement.
Chris Anderson is a 17 year old student, Homeless Volunteer and member of SDLP Youth Executive from North Belfast.