The Good Friday Agreement is the highlight of Northern Ireland’s century of division.
KEVIN MEAGHER considers the impact of the historic event
In just a few short weeks, the commemorations and indeed the celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement will begin.
It will be quite a moment as we reflect on just what a landmark achievement it was. There will be a lot of political backslapping, for sure, proving the old adage that success is the son of a thousand fathers.
But for once it is all permissible.
Let everyone claim credit for what was, is, and remains a gigantic achievement of politics and dialogue. An agreement where all got something, but no one got everything.
A peace agreement that brought 30 years of pain and suffering to a close, showing people around the world, who are dealing with their own wars and conflicts, that even the bitterest divisions can be bridged.
My abiding recollection of that time is knocking on the doors of terraced houses in West Belfast during the referendum campaign in May 1998, urging a ‘Yes’ vote for the new agreement.
I went over to campaign as a representative of Young Labour, campaigning with its sister party, the SDLP.
The place reminded me of Bolton, where I’m from, or, for that matter, any working-class town in northern England. Close-knit rows of red brick terraced houses.
Of course, at that time it was impossible not to imagine Belfast as some sort of warzone after growing up with the Troubles playing out endlessly on the Six O’clock News.
Yet here we were. Children played in the streets. There was no litter or graffiti anywhere.
The people – unfailingly polite and friendly - waved from their sofas and said ‘hello’ when, during the process of stuffing their letterbox with a pro-agreement leaflet, their front door swung open into their living room.
Northern Ireland was built on cynicism and division, yet on the streets there was a sense that a new era was upon us. The mood, particularly among Catholic nationalists, was buoyant.
That even after all the privations, discrimination, pain, and violence - not to mention the heaps of failed political talks and deals that raised and then dashed hopes — that here, at last, was a chance for something different.
I remember forming part of a human ‘Yes’ with other young campaigners from Ireland’s other political parties. It sounds like a corny PR stunt now, but back then it seemed to fit the mood.
While there are lots of political parties in Northern Ireland – making it much closer to the rest of Ireland than to Britain – the SDLP was tiny in comparison.
I found myself out on the streets of West Belfast with two or three other activists alongside the great John Hume, minus the entourage that political leaders usually have trailing behind them.
As well as lots of politicians, Northern Ireland has tonnes of media. Belfast still has three daily newspapers. Everywhere we went we were swamped by camera crews and photographers.
John Hume looked utterly exhausted. Decades of work inching proceedings to this point, played out on his crumpled face. He had paid a huge personal cost, as so many others had.
But Hume was a constant, saying and standing for the same things in 1998 as he had in 1968.
The weather was glorious the whole time I was there. Perfect blue skies and a burning sun. Belfast was lit up in technicolour. Everything looked vivid, adding to the palpable sense that something brilliant and worthy was taking place.
Years later, I came back during the last Labour government as special adviser to Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State.
Then it was about delivering the final part of the devolution settlement around justice and policing.
By then there were fewer eyes looking over anxiously about what might happen. Westminster assumed the peace deal, even with minor hiccups, was here to stay.
Now some will say that the regular suspension of the institutions – mothballed for nearly 40% of the time – is a failure. For anywhere else perhaps it would be. But Northern Ireland,102-years-old, has been a disaster for pretty much the whole time.
It has been a 50-30-20 century.
Five decades of sectarian misrule by unionists, building a state that kept Catholics out. Their unflinching response to legitimate grievances then fuelled 30 years of conflict.
‘The Troubles’ — a terrible understatement to describe a low-fi war where 3,600 people lost their lives — was the result.
Then we have the last 20 or so years of stop-start politics. It is not perfect by any means, with a dysfunctional system at Stormont and regular rows and breakdowns. But, in an instance, it is preferable to everything that went before it.
Battered and imperfect though it is, the agreement still resonates hope that even the bitterest conflicts can be resolved. Enough, certainly, to stop the spiral of killing and create space for political dialogue, however tetchy and imperfect that turns out to be, to take root.
For once, the backslapping is well-deserved.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it will Come About’ and ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division’