This is one of several keynote presentations made by politicians at Glencree Centre for Reconciliation‘s Summer School over the last weekend. Sean Farren re-iterates the centrality of the Belfast Agreement, and argues that the blame for vacuum lies squarely at the feet of paramilitaries. The hiatus has claimed lives and distracted politicians attention from key issues like reflating the local economy.By Sean Farren
The greatest political challenge for all of us in public life in the North is to recover the vision and the sense of hope that the Good Friday Agreement generated right across the communities North and South. More importantly we need to imbue the political process with a fresh generosity of spirit that will facilitate more positive relationships and without which our political institutions will find it difficult to function and the poison of sectarianism will not be drawn.
The GFA has provided the means whereby we can begin leaving the past behind and a better future carved out for all by local representatives working together. The agreement’s constitutional, institutional, policing, justice and human rights provisions are of a very robust kind. It was not any fundamental weaknesses in the agreement itself that brought suspension about but a failure to live up to commitments, especially those on decommissioning that caused a crisis of confidence between the parties
But after such a prolonged suspension of the institutions created by the GFA the sense of hope and the spirit of generosity it generated have been virtually sucked out of the political process. Consequently sectarianism remains alive and well and is now feeding racist attitudes in the North.
Several factors have contributed to this situation. But the provisional republican movement’s failure for so long to deliver on decommissioning was undoubtedly one of the most damaging. Its claims that decommissioning was a red herring, that decommissioning wouldn’t happen while at the same time conducting an extensive criminal campaign that climaxed in the Northern Bank robbery served only to strengthen those unionists opposed to the Agreement and weakened support for those who remained committed to it.
Loyalist paramilitaries who never felt bound by the GFA took full advantage of this situation to persist in their criminal activities, in their vendettas and in their attacks on the Catholic community.
I have no hesitation in saying that the paramilitaries, especially the IRA who, ironically, loudly proclaim that their aim is to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, carry the most blame for the prolonged suspension which envelopes the process. Add to that the indulgence afforded paramilitaries and their political backers by both governments – no sanctions for their prevarication and procrastination.
Instead both governments have offered further attempts to buy them off with such foolish proposals as those for community restorative justice and for dealing with the so-called ‘on-the-runs’. The first would have created a justice system paralleling the official system and so would have perpetuated paramilitary control of local communities. The second would have seen those alleged to have committed crime avoid even the most minimum judicial process.
It’s not difficult, therefore, to understand the sense of cynicism that now informs attitudes to the political process in the North.
At last the approach that ignored the truth and that however well intentioned its motives has by concentrating exclusively on the so-called problem parties, effectively rewarded those who bear the greatest responsibility for the paralysis that has passed for politics in the North, is now being abandoned.
In its place a new approach is being tried, one that the SDLP has longed since championed. That approach is the obvious one of involving all of the parties with a mandate. So, for the past few weeks and for the very first time in the history of conflict resolution in the North those parties have been meeting to address and try to resolve their outstanding differences.
So if we’re not to go down in history as the politicians who spurned the best means ever to build a new Ireland, to create harmonious relations between Orange and Green within the North and across Ireland as a whole, we need to openly and honestly grasp the opportunity we now have to restore the GFA, an opportunity which will only last until the 24 November.
Current discussions in the PfG committee have after a bad start got down to work at least in a business like way and with less of the acrimony between SF and the DUP that characterised that start.
But whether or not all the issues will be resolved in a manner that will make restoration possible is difficult to say. Even if all of the practical issues to do with how the Assembly, the NSMC, the BIC etc are to work, and what the arrangements should be for the administration of policing and justice, the Bill of Rights etc., the key issue is whether the DUP will see it to be in their interest to agree to enter and lead an administration with SF. It is part of the challenge we face that we convince the DUP that it is in their interest and indeed in the interest of all of the people of Northern Ireland that they do so.
Practically this means creating confidence between all of the parties that the following commitments are being honoured –
that partnership will be exercised in a genuine spirit of cooperation, not in one that seeks to constrain developments whether within the North, between North and South or between East and West;
that paramilitarism has clearly been abandoned and that exclusively democratic means will be used in order to promote political causes;
that policing and justice systems have the full endorsement of all political parties.
The days when any party should have to move to meet its commitments before others have moved to meet theirs are over. There is no possibility of that ever happening again. So we all need to pledge to meet our commitments together and so create the mutual confidence essential to sustaining the political institutions.
Should all of that happen then we can move very quickly to re-establish the institutions, to complete arrangements for the devolution of justice and policing and then set about tackling the day-to-day social and economic challenges that politicians in and out of government everywhere are in business to do.
In the North the challenge is to develop a more dynamic economy that moves us to a better balance between wealth creation and wealth consumption (we consume much more wealth than we produce by a factor of approx 50%); to fast forward infrastructural investment; to develop programmes to more effectively tackle social disadvantage. And above all to tackle the sectarianism that continues to poison relationships in our society; that takes the lives of young teenagers like Michael McIlveen and many, many others and that constructs so-called peace walls and creates no-go areas in our cities, twins and villages.
Those who would be responsible for us not being able to move to this position would rightly earn the very strong condemnation of this and succeeding generations. They would have betrayed the tremendous efforts that have been made by friends and supporters of a peaceful and democratic way forward. Such friends are here today, they have been with us throughout the past ten years, and they have come from here at home and from abroad. But above all it will be our own people whose hopes and expectations from what we could do together who will have been betrayed.