GFA Referendum +15: Remembering ‘the People’ and Renewing Fundamentals

By Colin Harvey

Dates matter on this island. None more than 22nd May 1998. Our shared and collective act of self-determination pointed to a constitutional future where we now rely only on each other. A future where persuasion counts; and people matter more than flags and territory. Readers of Slugger will need no reminding of the Derry person who stood for that version of Irish unity, and also know that others continue to carry this message forward now. On a day when we recall the voices of the people of our island, and as we reflect on how we are going to get on together, two basics need to be repeated.

First, those who still claim to use force to ‘persuade’ the rest of us must end their armed campaign now. Let’s be simple: If you are republicans at all then listen and stop now. The people of this island were never in any doubt about how unity worth having would be achieved. When they got the chance, when they were asked, they made that point well. Cynics still dismiss that 1998 act of self-determination as a ‘vote for peace’ or even a casual option for an easier life. How wrong that is. This week is no better time to call on those who seek to use force still to talk to us. We will listen too; but only around a table where the force of the better argument is given a chance to prevail; and around a table where we treat each other with equality and mutual respect.

Second, all those in public life here – across all communities – need to reaffirm the collective will to give life to agreed values and principles that transcend any one agreement. Maturity in life includes honest reflection on collective and individual failings; complacency can be addressed, imaginative reform can happen. Let us respect each other as people, with all our diverse and multiple political, social and national aspirations, and with all the flaws humanity can never escape from. Can we continue to work together maturely in the world we are in, and the place we are now? A start can be made this week by renewing our constitutional fundamentals.

The Agreement of 1998 reflected many other ambitions and principles. The right of women to full and equal participation in public life, the right to live free from sectarian harassment, the right to seek constitutional change through non-violent means, and the recognition of the right to pursue our diverse national and political aspirations on the basis of equality. These ambitions remain under-enforced, too many individuals and communities have been left behind, we still do not have key safeguards in place 15 years on, and ethical engagement with the past has not happened.

Too many of our current conversations (here or elsewhere) remain relaxed, unchallenging and resolutely comfortable. As difficult as things now appear, the founding principles have never been formally repudiated. They can still offer a grounding for critical insight, challenge and opportunity. This is no time to abandon ideas and principles that we can too easily take for granted. There is work they can still do, the job is not done.

Is the script for our democratic life thus already written? Is the ‘jigsaw now complete’? Is the future carved in stone? No. We need not be condemned to a bland, predictable and monolithic politics for eternity. Mould-breakers often led us precisely to where we now are. They often came from the very ‘city of culture’ rightly celebrated this year. No one owns hard-won political and public spaces; we should learn from the last century that little in politics is necessarily certain. Change can be made to happen, issues can be forced onto agendas; with determination, luck and some skill. But this does not just arrive, it must be worked for.

So, let us not become complacent about the principles that led us here; and let us not fall for lazy critiques of the concepts which cleared the space for safe reflection and dialogue. Why? Because those fundamentals might just offer us secure ladders to a different place. We can get there together; if we want to. The question for us all remains: Do we want to enough?

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast. He served as Head of the Law School at Queen’s (2007-2012) and as a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner (2005-2011). He is a member of the Church in Society Forum of the Irish Inter-Church Committee.


  • Serious research needs to be conducted into the expectations and motivations of those voting both yes and no in the referendums North and South. How many of the nationalists in the North voted for the Agreement in the expectation that decommissioning would never have to be carried out? How many loyalists did the same?

    In the South the referendum passed overwhelmingly with little organized no effort on the part of traditionalists in Fianna Fail who wanted to keep the constitutional claim to NI. I believe that there were two major factors that accounted for this.

    First, the Celtic Tiger economy allowed many who would normally have taken psychological refuge in traditional FF nationalist positions to abandon them and contemplate a future for Ireland in European terms as part of the EU rather than in nationalist terms with the 6 counties as terra irredenta.

    Second, the religious scandals of the 1990s involving Fr. Brendan Smyth, Bishop Casey, and another prominent priest whose name I forget had the effect of normalizing Ireland as a Western European society in time for the referendum. The irredentist wing of the FF led by Sile de Valera was largely composed of people from rural areas, particularly in the border counties, where religion was stronger.

    This move away from religion may have led to many opponents seemly staying home on the day of the vote.

  • “On a day when we recall the voices of the people of our island, and as we reflect on how we are going to get on together, two basics need to be repeated.”

    Colin Harvey appears to be stuck in the ‘island of Ireland’ groove, the strand 2 of the 1998 Agreement. Has it not dawned on him that the Hume analysis prior to the Agreement was an obstacle to progress, that it was rejected during the course of the negotiations, that a balanced approach to the two constitutional aspirations was required?

    Paisley and Hume were mould-breakers but that breaking led to death and serious injury as well as to the destruction of businesses.

    The 1998 ‘solution’, unfortunately, led both London and Dublin at times, in their own self-interests, to elevate the power and influence of parapoliticians above that of politicians.

  • cjharvey

    Thank you for these comments.

    The intention of this short piece is simply to remind people about one significant constitutional moment on our island.

    There seems to be some merit in celebrating these democratic moments too, as we seek to nurture a shared society North and South.

    Thank you once again.