Good Friday Agreement at 15: The dour fatalism of our political Calvinists…

Maybe it’s because it took place in the last Millenium that our memories of that fateful day seem so quickly dated and fading so quickly. The freshest piece writing from that time is Danny Morrison’s great piece of gonzo journalism:

Then, at 7.10 am Mitchell McLaughlin arrives to read out a short statement but not to answer questions. In confident tones he declares that Sinn Fein has, during negotiations, clawed back a considerable amount of ground which it believed had been lost earlier. Suddenly, the atmosphere changes. There is no rush of Ulster Unionist MPs out to contradict him. The impossible begins to seem possible. Everyone is in great form. There is a buzz. This could genuinely be a new beginning. Of course, there are still problems. Of course, there are issues outstanding, and we can forget about it all if Orange feet get marching down Garvaghy Road this July.

Of course, not everyone joined right away. At the time of Danny’s writing the IRA retained it’s command structure, its arms, its alternative policing structure throughout most of it’s stronghold territory and most of all a military discipline over it own party activists that was elude most of the other parties to the terms of the agreement.

The DUP had issued clear terms of its engagement in a referendum that barely squeaked past on the unionist side a month later. But the day itself was one of nearly unconfined joy.

Frank Millar wrote in piece for the front page of the Irish Times:

They really did make history here. In joy and wonderment, and something approaching disbelief, friends and allies – and even some old adversaries – allowed themselves the luxurious embrace of fresh hope and the sense of new beginnings.

And in his book Northern Ireland: A Triumph of Politics, Millar recalls a local broadcaster recounting:

Think of all the bad days we’ve known here. Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Bloody Monday, Bloody, bloody days. This really will be a Good Fridy.

Much of the commentary that’s come after has bemoaned the many shortcomings of the settlement, and particularly of the politics that have taken shape in the penumbra of one of Northern Ireland’s brightest days.

Where are the women; the civic forum? The Bill of Rights, or the all island Charter?

The simple answer is that politicians do not like rivals to power. The more complex relates to how the events of that good Good Friday in back in 1998 came to be seen by the very politicians who had worked so hard (and sacrificed so much of their adult lives) to achieve.

The ecstasy – and anyone doubting that that is exactly what these wizen old, cynical old crows experienced should get a hold of some of the live coverage from Radio Ulster of the time – seems to have been akin to some sense that this was it.

That our collective salvations lay in this one transfiguring moment, like some secular Calvinist moment that would self generate a path to peace and light and genuine fraternal era in which all that bitter past would be banished for good.

Wiseabap outlines what has become the commonplace understanding of the terms of what was supposed to have been our political salvation:

The Agreement was a masterpiece of ambiguity – meaning different things to different groups – and giving a political structure that allowed some level of self-governance for the first time in a generation. Yet this very system has stagnated politics – decision making is constipated and bureaucracy strangles creativity and innovation.

Yet this is not strictly true. The Agreement itself was clear and unambiguous in its outline. And the legislation it gave rise to in two jurisdictions even more so. What was ambiguous was how it was sold (or rather not sold).

It took a more sullen, drear and prescriptive document hammered out largely between the by then two main parties (the former extremes) at St Andrews, and a hell of a lot of arm twisting by THREE governments to get eventually get the show rolling some eight years later.

As Peter Preston noted at the time, that second agreement assumed there was no middle ground to speak of (having failed in the early stress tests of accommodating Sinn Fein).

What we have is the trappings of power shared across the boundaries, but little sense of of willing collective effort across the aisles on the issues that still matter hugely to the population.

That joyous moment gave rise to a fatalistic trust in an inevitably progressive future. If people want it to change they must heed the sage advice of Paul Arthur (a key player in the track two negotiations that lead to the signing of the GFA) and rise once again above the fatalism generated by our own “sui generis” politics

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  • 1994, the year that the paramilitaries decided to stop killing people and destroying the economy, was a more joyous one for me.

    1998 was the year that the three governments converted Terence O’Neill’s ‘Ulster at the Cross-roads’ thirty years earlier to a magic roundabout; the electorate were sold a pig-in-a-poke.

    The Agreement contained wonderful sentiments about working together but it’s constitutional settlement facilitated a shared-out rather than a shared future.

    I’m no dour political Calvanist – more a warm-hearted political realist whose had the pleasure and thrill of tilling the common ground in ecumenical company for half a century 🙂

    So long as our politicians and public servants protect their institutions at the expense of its victims I’ll continue to kick ass.

  • Greenflag

    Nevin ,

    ‘the electorate were sold a pig-in-a-poke.’

    They would’nt have bought anything else and even then it took almost 40 years to deliver the ‘poked pig’ of a temporary political solution .

    ‘it’s constitutional settlement facilitated a shared-out rather than a shared future.’

    In a society which was then and still is relatively economically stagnant with a very high public sector dependency -shared out -in the here and now -was always going to be more sellable politically than any problematic ‘future ‘ shared or otherwise .

    ‘So long as our politicians and public servants protect their institutions at the expense of its victims I’ll continue to kick ass.’

    Good man Nevin . Don’t forget the Doc Martins . They tend to get to the seat of the matter if applied with the requisite force ,accuracy and consistency 😉

  • Greenflag

    ‘From the sui generis link – he Paul Arthur goes as far to say you will never get out of your conflict if you cannot rise above that fatalism.’

    He is of course correct in a we gotta keep pushing the boulder up the mountain kind of way . But there is also a viewpoint which would hold that what is ‘fatal ‘ even a political institution or a state should be allowed to die a natural death when it’s no longer fit for purpose . Northern Ireland can probably only ever get rid of it’s conflict if it gets rid of itself .And that we all know won’t be today or tomorrow or anytime soon . Ergo for now it’s as good (or as bad ) as it gets . And be grateful it is’nt worse .

  • “They would’nt have bought anything else”

    They weren’t offered anything else, Greenflag. They might just have preferred my offer of shared sovereignty with all the trimmings to a gift that favoured and favours thugs in suits.

    The local economy is really struggling; I’m told that Ballycastle has lost five small businesses since Christmas and Ballymoney seven. The DRD, in its accumulated wisdom, has introduced measures that drive potential customers away.

    I always wear boots and a smile; the first emphasise my culchie roots and the second discommodes legal eagles and others who try to bully or otherwise intimidate me 🙂

  • “And be grateful it is’nt worse”

    Greenflag, that’s the sort of response I expect from London and Dublin NIMBYs and hypocrites; I hoped you would have been around Slugger long enough to show a little bit more compassion for the good and decent folks here.

  • Greenflag

    Nevin ,

    ”They weren’t offered anything else’

    True mainly because full integration was out and a United Ireland was a non runner . I know you have placed your faith in shared sovereignty in the past – At least you are consistent in that . My opinion on ‘sovereignty ‘ i.e any kind of real ‘sovereignty ‘ for any small nation (in which I include the UK -never mind Ireland or Northern Ireland is that ‘sovereignty ‘ is not what it used to be unless one is a North Korean and thats not a society to emulate ..

    BTW -The ‘thugs ‘ in suits rule the world and not just NI .But they are not, at least in more recent times , the relatively harmless buffoons in SF or the DUP . Not at all.The ‘real ‘ thugs in today’s globalised economy operate from London,New York , and Berlin etc .They are called ‘banks ‘ .But their true business is the looting of taxpayers wherever they can all across the democratic and non democratic world with the assistance of our ‘elected ‘ politicians of the right , left and centre 🙁

    ‘I hoped you would have been around Slugger long enough to show a little bit more compassion for the good and decent folks here.’

    That I have Nevin – and for the good and decent folks everywhere else in these islands and beyond . That’s exactly what I was getting at when I made the point ‘be grateful it isn’t worse ‘.

    Yes there is a lot wrong with the GFA but I have’nt yet been able to come up with what I would see as a practical alternative given the economic , political and historical limitations . I truly wish it were otherwise and hopefully some day it will be .

  • @Greenflag,

    You are right about being glad that it wasn’t worse. When I heard the news about the Good Friday Agreement being signed I was in the process of demobbing from a peacekeeping tour in Bosnia. I was near a city that looked like it could have been used as a set for a World War II movie portraying Warsaw, some German city, or some city in the western USSR. Bosnia has an even more screwed up system of government than NI with layers of government: a federal government holding together two parts that don’t want anything to do with each other, and then about three or four levels of local government. There are plenty of paramilitaries running things in both parts, and the EU funds the whole thing because they figure that isn’t cheaper than risking another outbreak of fighting if they don’t. Tens of thousands still are refugees in countries around Europe or in America.

    The best thing that NI has going for it is that it is not independent but part of another larger, richer country. And judging by what happened recently in Ireland, it’s a good thing that that country is the UK and not Ireland.

  • Greenflag

    @ tmitch57 ,

    ‘When I heard the news about the Good Friday Agreement being signed I was in the process of demobbing from a peacekeeping tour in Bosnia. I was near a city that looked like it could have been used as a set for a World War II movie portraying Warsaw, ‘

    Indeed -it looked different than it does on TV .Collateral damage is one our modern euphemisms for describing the horror of war and destruction . I was 50 miles from Srebenica around the time of the massacre of 8,000 .The gory details were related to be by a South African who had been involved in an administrative role there with peacekeeping forces .I recall him saying that nothing that ever happened in South Africa in the run up to the ending of apartheid in South Africa compared with what had happened in Srebenica and elsewhere in those years .Some of the ‘events’ he described happening there made the atrocities that took place in Northern Ireland look tame -although that is no consolation to those who have suffered as victims in NI during the ‘troubles ‘.

    ‘the best thing that NI has going for it is that it is not independent but part of another larger, richer country.’

    Well not just that but also that the UK whatever about it’s imperial history is today and has been for a century or more a relatively democratic and tolerant society as well as an ‘enlightened ‘one .

    ‘And judging by what happened recently in Ireland, it’s a good thing that that country is the UK and not Ireland.’

    Indeed -at least for the short term -longer term that may not be so .But as of now neither the Irish or British or indeed any other politicians have much idea of how to cope with the vast ‘upheaval ‘ that has taken place in the world’s financial sector over the last decade or more .Those few who do understand whats going on are unable to do anything to mitigate the worse aspects of the huge structural change going on -brought about of course by new technologies , robotics -derivatives trading etc etc . Financial capital is King uber alles and our democracies are virtually powerless in face of the market .

    This is also what keeps NI in it’s current ‘subventioned ‘ stagnat state and is what has been behind the ‘bail out ‘ scenarios across Europe and the USA .Ironically those countries who avoided the worst of the Great Recession are the ‘nanny states ‘ of the world -Sweden , Canada , Denmark , Australia , Finland , Germany etc .

  • “The dour fatalism of our political Calvinists… (by which I DON’T mean just Prods!)”

    A rather quaint branding, Mick, considering that Calvinists are a particular breed of Prods – power to the people in the pew Prods 🙂

    fatalism:

    1. The belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.

    2. A submissive attitude to events, resulting from such a belief.

    Any monarch, president, premier, bishop, clergyman who expects Calvinist submissiveness is in for a fairly rude awakening. Some Calvinists are noted more for their arrogance and self-righteousness – God’s chosen people – For God and Ulster – With God on our side. For them, there’s not much submissiveness in the realm of politics.

    There’s more than one way of looking at the ‘dour’ qualification; here are two – courtesy of the Dictionary of the Scots Language:

    dour:

    1. Determined, resolute, stern, hardy.

    2. Obstinate, stubborn, unwilling; sullen.

    These are words that are applicable to both unionists and nationalists when faced with adversity but they only tell part of the story; we are not a humourless people; we’re always up for a yarn.

    I do grittiness with a smile and a bit of droll humour – and I avoid the grapes of Rathlin Island 🙂