As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement we’re engaging in what has become an annual tradition: a reflection on how far Northern Ireland has come. This comes with the usual back patting. Then there’s a bit of critical analysis – people talking about how we must do better – from the commentariat outside of Stormont.
However, this anniversary has prompted one of the most critical reflections; from one of the major power brokers who made the agreement come about in 1998: the United States of America .
President Obama in a statement said of Northern Ireland:
“The people of Northern Ireland and their leaders have travelled a great distance over the past 15 years. Step by step, they have traded bullets for ballots, destruction and division for dialogue and institutions, and pointed the way toward a shared future for all. There is urgent work still to be done – and there will be more tests to come. The many who have brought Northern Ireland this far must keep rejecting their call.”
Mr Obama said that “every citizen and every political party” needed to work together in service of “true and lasting peace and prosperity.” He added further:
“I pledge our continued support for their efforts to build a strong society, a vibrant economy, and an enduring peace.”
The United States, like the other key partners, including the EU, British and Irish governments, involved in the Agreement in 1998 will no doubt be frustrated at the lack of progress on key issues.
Duncan Morrow, the former Director of the Community Relations Council, wrote a very critical analysis of the current situation and progress made since 1998 on a website created especially for the anniversary of the agreement – 15 Year On. He summed this up in his final paragraph:
“Without visible effort from the Executive – usually called leadership – 15 years will rapidly become a quarter of a century without change. There will be no more rhyming of hope and history. This is already a test of the whole political edifice constructed in 1998. Like every crisis, it contains opportunity. But 30 more years of ‘same old same old’ is not an option.”
Northern Ireland is very much at a crossroads, this is ironic given the 50th anniversary of the start of Terence O’Neill’s premiership, with key issues not addressed fully by this Executive in a successful way. With the raise of apathy among voters and the outbreak of protests, following the flag decision taken at Belfast City Council, along with the Dissident threat there is a sense that Northern Ireland is not at peace with itself. Confidence is a key problem as there is a lack of trust and confidence at this point. Without the leadership at the top there will be a vacuum created at the bottom leading to long term issues bubbling into more serious challenges.
[Commentary from Aaran Callan and cartoon from Brian John Spencer]