"How wrong we were"

Bruce Arnold, writing in the Irish Independent, argues that the Good Friday Agreement “was designed to end sectarianism, not just religious sectarianism but the social exclusion of fanaticism and intolerance.”.. and it has failed.

He sets out the extent of that failure –

The extremes have grown in power and in direct opposition to each other. Neither will give without winning concessions. And the concessions are usually a denial of the position of the other side. The circumstances of the Good Friday Agreement was always much cruder than Sunningdale. After years of violence, the issue was about guns and killing, and bombs in Britain. The needs that provoked this structure blunted the edge of judgment.

It was believed, quite wrongly, that the underlying sectarianism, in what appeared to be a new deal offered by the Good Friday Agreement, was at least likely to diminish, and would, inevitably, bring the communities together. It has done the reverse. It has polarised them.

The sectarianism has become worse. It has intensified in virtually all the dimensions outlined. The politicians in power, notably Blair and Ahern, but also to a lesser extent Clinton, by extra engagement with those making the more extreme demands, encouraged them to reinforce their positions.

Time, he appears to argue, for the blinkers to come off and a proper debate on a democratic future to begin –

Blair and other politicians have become the creatures of this new sectarianism and do not know how to get out of it. Negotiations which were intended to resolve and bring together. They became, instead, a battle-ground for enhanced extremism. Demand and counter-demand were an augmentation of the sectarian divide, quite the opposite of what was intended.

Furthermore, whether written or unwritten, spoken or not, in both parliaments, in London and Dublin, there was an additional pact that favoured the encouragement of sectarianism. This was the quite effective bi-partisanship which denied proper debate.

Collectively, all sides accepted a broad and woolly principle of a peace process which, before their eyes, was hardening the lines of demarcation on sectarian terms.

What was reasoned and constructed in good faith, on the basis that, if it worked it would reconcile the two “sects” in the Northern Ireland and in the South to a very much lesser extent, has turned into a nightmare. And current developments, most notably the McCartney demonstration of several different aspects of this sectarianism at its worst, should have opened our eyes to the mistake we made at the outset.

  • Alan McDonald

    Let me be the first to say, from a distance of 3,000 miles, that the ascendancy of the more extreme parties (Sinn Fein and the DUP) makes it look like polarization does indeed have the upper hand. My question to those of you “on the ground” is: Is there more or less polarization among the average citizens than there was before the GFA?

  • joedavis

    How wrong can Bruce Arnold be?
    At the highest level, the 2 Christian power blocs from the dark ages are determined to exclude those who “tip their caps” to neither. Their best efforts therefore, can primarily only be an attempt at damage limitation for themselves, making the present shambles inevitable.
    The political ideology of Catholic Nationalism (growing before the border ever existed) hijacked the vocabulary of Republicanism and perverted it suit their own needs.
    Irish Catholic Nationalism created British Imperialism to take the spotlight off Roman Imperialism, and most citizens – including journalists – seem to have fallen for it.
    Joe Davis.

  • vespasian


    It was always the case that when the terrorists were ‘forgiven’ their crimes that lawlessness and control of the central areas would become the preserve of the violent, as it showed that you could commit crimes and get away with it and that for the GFA to survive it need those self same people to ‘support it .

    The turning of a blind eye by Blair and Aherne to the excesses of these groups has exacerbated this process and we have now turned to the main terrorists into common gangsters, who do not even have the any longer have the flag of patriotism and protection to fall back on.

    When crime is forgiven it flourishes and there are many examples of that in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland not least the McCartney case.

    The seeds were sown when the politicians such as Blair and Aherne needed to woo the terrorists to succeed in their aims.

    I really do believe that NI is more polarised as more and more people have lost faith in the political process as it has become discredited and are shunning the ballot box.

  • factfinder

    There is nothin wrong with extremes. If two parties at extreme ends of the spectrum can agree then it will be more lasting than an agreement by those in the middle who are perceived as compromising too easily too quickly.

  • factfinder

    There is nothing wrong with extremes. If two parties at extreme ends of the spectrum can agree then it will be more lasting than an agreement by those in the middle who are perceived as compromising too easily too quickly.

  • New Yorker


    I agree with most of what you say. But, I believe it was the right thing to try to convert the terrorists to peaceful and democratic ways. With hindsight we know they were dishonest and conned those with good intentions. Now the question is what are you going to do with them? It seems from this side of the Atlantic that you still want to put bank robbers in major government positions. Do you realize how insane this is to deomcratic and civilized countries of the world?

  • vespasian


    Most people here now agree with you, the political parties don’t, as they need the GFA to survive regardless of what they say, that is why many many voters are turning away from politics.

    I want the governments and political parties to say –
    -there will be no more concessions to terrorists
    – there will be no more discussion with terrorists or their representatives
    – there will be no place in the government for parties who do not say there is no place for violence or vigilantism in our society and actively promote those policies
    – there will be an equal place for all democratic parties.

    Has any party said all that and meant it – no! The party that does will bring back many of the non voters

  • IJP


    I’ll see if I can get Alliance to say exactly that, then! However, it’s still a game of semantics. In your last point, what does ‘democratic’ mean? Parties that share platforms with terrorists? Parties that invite terrorists to their functions? That’s both main Unionist parties out then…


    It would be wrong to say everything is worse post-Agreement. Unemployment is now lower than GB, we can move about freely, Belfast City Centre is really quite a ‘funky’ place (as an English visitor described it to me). Yet there is no sign that segregation is becoming any less widespread.

    Broadly, I agree with Vespasian as indicated.

    Politically, our big problem is that those in power still expect reasonable people to negotiate and deal with unreasonable people. Unreasonable people will not compromise, but compromise is necessary.

    Economically, our big problem is we are a basket case and we haven’t recognized how important economics is to conflict resolution. Compared to under 20% in the US and under 25% in all other GB regions, NI has over 40% of its workforce employed directly by the public sector – in other words by the State. This creates a dependency culture which is bad for confidence.

    Socially, our big problem is that public policy still dictates that we must live, work and educate separately, based on ‘communal’ affiliation. Indeed, a recent Government document basically said people have a right to live in segregated areas. Segregation is not a right – it wasn’t right in the Southern US, and it’s not right in Northern Ireland. Only a policy of social integration – in education, leisure, housing and every other way – will remove the ignorance that breeds distrust that breeds fear that breeds intolerance that breeds hatred that breeds conflict.

    Criminally, our big problem is that ‘paramilitary groups’ including the IRA are now no more than mafia controlling their turf, and no one has the guts to take them on.

    This is what the process has led to, no wonder voter turnout is falling so rapidly…

  • vespasian


    To me Democratic means that there is NO support for any form of vigilantism or criminality or support for any group that carries out such activities.

    If a party or parties talks to them it does not make necessarily make them undemocratic if the discussions are about trying to get them to stop what they are doing. In light of the current situation I would prefer that it did not happen.

    I really don’t see any of the main parties in NI as being fully Democratic, maybe Alliance is the closest but I perceive their attempts to be all things to all people making them a party with a mish mash of policies covering the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour.

  • Alan McDonald


    Thank you for giving me that insight to life on the ground. One of the reasons I oppose state or federal funding for parochial education here in the US is the effect it has there in NI.

  • IJP


    No problem.

    I know many US diplomats have arrived in NI and been stunned by the fact we still educate our children in separate ‘camps’.

    However, that is one area where breakthroughs have happened, even if not quickly enough. But to give a recent example: the small town of Ballycastle (pop 6000) has three schools – one State (Protestant), one Maintained (Catholic) and one Irish medium. When people banded together to form an integrated school, the State refused to fund it. The school is funded by parents and, unbelievably, by an Irish Fund based in Australia. That is what I mean by public policy giving us the ‘right’ and even ‘forcing’ us to live apart, rather than abolishing that ‘right’ (which never did exist) and making the default living together.

    People should have to go out of their way to live apart, not the other way around.


    To be fair, I would make Alliance and the SDLP the two Assembly parties with no hint of terrorist sympathy, although the latter is single-community which in itself breeds the ignorance and therefore the conflict I talk about above. You cannot of course compare the Unionist parties’ links to terrorists to SF’s, but nor should we be blind to them.

    On Alliance, thanks for the feedback. I think I and my Young Alliance colleagues would agree, although naturally I can’t speak for all of them. But I will say this: Alliance has a vision of a much better society, where public policy is carried out for the welfare of our citizens, not to balance the ill-defined demands of competing sectarian extremists. That is a vision quite different from the one offered by anyone else – if it is ‘extreme’ to suggest that we should stop paying for segregation and re-direct the money into better public services for all (with no water charges, no rates rises, no tuition fees etc), then I’m proud to be ‘extreme’.

  • vespasian


    While you may be correct that SDLP have no direct terrorist sympathies, their failure to move on without SF does give me cause for comcern as to where their sympathies lie – with democrats or terrorists.

    They argue about manadates but we all know their fear is of losing votes so their actions are ones of self presevation not because of what is right.

  • Davros

    vespasian , the way I see it – I don’t find it surprising that the SDLP are hesitating before jumping into bed with either of the 2 main Unionist parties. I know I won’t vote for either of them.

  • ShayPaul


    SDLP have definite anti terrorist credentials- who else can claim the same ?

    Yourself included.

  • Moderate Unionist

    IJP Vespasian
    There were many Unionists who voted for the Good Friday Agreement, most with reservations. For you to say that we are all tainted with support for paramilitarism is objectionable.

    Trimble was hung out to dry by Blair, Ahern and the SDLP. Want the moderates to rise again? Think again!

    Your “holier than thou attitude” is just as bad as the extremists. Both the Alliance Party and the Conservatives are irrelevant.

    So where will the solutions come from? Will the DUP and SF be able to conclude their deal after the general election? They might want their ministerial posts but I don’t think it will be basis of anything lasting.

  • vespasian


    I resent that implication and ask you to withdraw it at once.

    I have NEVER supported terrorists of any hue nor sympathised with their actions or aims. I totally abhor violence in polictics from where ever it emanates.

    The SDLP by their actions in refusing to shun SF are on questionable ground – it goes to the root of Alex Kane’s question on an earlier thread about the SDLP’s preferences for Unionism or Republicanism.


    Who you chose to vote for is not relevant (not that I disagree with you), the point is they are prepared to turn a blind eye to Republican violence when it suits them electorally, nationalism and survival come above democratic politics.

    Is that the only choice that we are left with in Northern Ireland? If it is, then it will be a long long time before we can reach any accomodation here.

  • IJP


    SDLP have definite anti terrorist credentials- who else can claim the same ?

    Well, Alliance. That was my point!


    For you to say that we are all tainted with support for paramilitarism is objectionable.

    I don’t think Vespasian said that and I certainly didn’t.

    However, people who cast their vote for Unionist candidates must recognize they are casting their vote for a party which is tainted by terrorism, as per the examples I have noted. That is not to say they are voting for terrorists, but they are voting for people prepared to go along with colleagues prepared to countenance terrorists, again as per the examples I’ve noted. Furthermore, Unionism’s founding document to all intents and purposes clearly states that violence is an acceptable means of attaining a political goal. There is a Unionist blindspot concerning terrorism, like it or not.

    Alliance and, to be fair, the SDLP are not prepared to countenance terrorists or terrorist sympathizers anywhere in their ranks, they have not done so, and they are not founded on the basis that it is even remotely acceptable to do so.

    I agree with Vespasian that although the SDLP’s talk sounds good, its actions reflect an inability to see over the sectarian trench. That is a reflection, however, not of pro-terrorism but of single-community politics, and is precisely the reason that single-community politics cannot work.

    where will the solutions come from?

    The Alliance Party, if history is anything to go by. The foundations of the party, uniquely among the Assembly parties, are power-sharing locally accountable democracy, these are also the foundations of both the 1974 and 1998 Agreements which foundered because of illegitimate strikes and ongoing terrorist/mafia activity supported (directly and indirectly) by other parties. You can be sure that any future agreement will have the same foundations. Sectarian carve-up won’t work, wholly representative democracy will. That’s not arrogance, it’s historical record.

    (Perceived irrelevance of a party is not part of the equation. 100 years ago Labour was irrelevant. 40 years ago no current Assembly party (excepting the UUC) existed in NI.)

  • vespasian

    Moderate Unionist

    You didn’t read what I said …………. ‘If a party or parties talks to them it does not make necessarily make them undemocratic if the discussions are about trying to get them to stop what they are doing. In light of the current situation I would prefer that it did not happen.’

    I voted for the GFA I was sold a pig in a poke as were you and 75% of the people who voted for it ..’In light of current situation I would prefer it didn’t happen’ … i.e. until the terrorists stop killing, robbing etc. and are finally wound up.

    Incidentally the UUP are starting to look irrelevant with about what would be 8-10% of the total electorate in recent polls.

  • vespasian


    I wouldn’t discount the Alliance ( Lib Dems) and Conservatives so quickly, once Labour are forced to organise here properly and stand for election.

    Then all of the mainland parties will be here fighting for their space. The Conservatives have been badly organised here, when they mounted one or two effective individual campaigns they did make considerable inroads.

    I forecast that by 2009/2013 you will see all the mainland parties contesting all seats in Northern Ireland then the local parties will have to look at their relevance within the greater UK (and perhaps with an Irish dimension of FG and FF etc.)

  • vespasian

    Has anyone noticed it is summer time everyewhere except in Sluggerotoole!