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

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty