“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.