20 Years on from the Good Friday Agreement
It's been twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. At that time, the agreement was regarded as a blueprint for peace and the process to make the agreement has since been used as an example of how to achieve reconciliation in divided communities across the world.
It's all the more poignant, therefore, that on the twentieth anniversary of the agreement, so much of what was promised and agreed remains undelivered and unfulfilled, and the very nature of the agreement is now frequently called into question.
The overwhelming support for the agreement was evidenced by the 71.1% of voters in the north who gave their support to the new deal. In the south, the support shown was stronger again 94.4%. By the time of its signing people, both in the negotiations and sitting at home watching the news, desperately wanted and needed a breakthrough. The text of the agreement was one thing, but its very existence was an achievement in itself.
Since the collapse of the devolved institutions in January of last year, there has been much discussion on whether or not the Good Friday Agreement is still fit for purpose, or if it ever was to begin with. Countless times in the past twenty years and particularly during the political deadlock for the last 14 months, it's been shown that the structures and procedures as set out in the agreement are not without their flaws. During the past two decades, safeguarding measures became vetoes and power sharing became power dividing.
Although these issues have arisen from provisions that have been set out in the agreement itself, no agreement can or ever could deliver what was promised in 1998 unless it was implemented and implemented in full. This implementation requires much more than simply following the letter of the agreement, but the spirit of the agreement is central to its success.
The DUP still takes pride in having rejected the Good Friday Agreement and happily states that they would vote against it again if given the chance. The party's refusal to recognise the importance of the agreement which brought about so much peace is alarming and disheartening. How can the process move forward when some of the key players disagree with the process in the first place?
In the lead up to the 2016 Assembly elections, there was plenty of talk about how this was the longest continuous run of devolution since the agreement was made, and that surely this means that progress and stability were the order of the day. Of course, there were many elements of the agreement which had not yet been implemented, but these things could be resolved in time. More time. The existence of the devolved institutions in themselves was a success, we were told.
Then, the institutions fell again. The RHI scandal and other scandals, the abuse of the petition of concern, a failure to address the legacy of the past and many more issues came to a head and Martin McGuinness knew that the institutions couldn't operate in those conditions, that people wanted and deserved more than that, and it was time to walk away. However, the agreement has never failed, the agreement simply hasn't been implemented.
There's no denying that important progress has been made and that people in the north are better off now than in 1998. However, it's absolutely clear that no amount of agreements, deals, programmes for government or fresh starts can implement all the progress and changes that are still so badly needed unless the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is respected and fulfilled. A return to the principles which brought about the agreement in 1998 of respect, recognition and a willingness to be brave for the sake of progress are the only things which restore devolution and complete the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.