Aperture opens at Corrymeela

It is a rare occasion that a Slugger writer gets to report on Alan Meban.

Corrymeela Executive Director Colin Craig chaired a discussion this afternoon which asked the question, “Are we done with the Good Friday Agreement?”, also featuring Alan McBride and Gerry Kelly.

Our Alan linked the Good Friday Agreement with his then church’s annual youth fellowship Easter trip to Ballycastle and being inveigled to change station away from the discussions about it to Cool FM, although he didn’t reveal what happened when he went out of range of the music station. He recalled the delivery of the agreement to everyone’s door, Martina Purdy’s book Room 21, and the Presbyterian Church’s 47-point review of the agreement.

Implementation of the agreement was incomplete. Reviews of the system, including Petitions of Concern, had been half-hearted, and raised the question of the condition of the scaffolding holding it all up.

A rising tide lifts everybody, but a short chain tied to the seabed will make you drown. Nationalists were more ready to adapt to new situation, but loyalists weren’t.

Alan would like to see Gerry Kelly regularly arguing for loyalist communities on the radio; Alliance to be prophets rather than being the glue holding everything together; unionists to explain why Twaddell is counterproductive; and Greens to be as good as Jim Allister at asking awkward questions. He also wants to see victims looked at, better civic involvement and a change in tone.

Gerry Kelly noted David Trimble’s admission that he had failed to prepare the grass roots, and said it was essential but difficult to engage with as many people as possible – including the discussions around the Police and Patten.

Sometimes you are so deep in you need to step back and take things in five year chunks. The Agreements were very important – for example St Andrews’ in particular for the DUP, and Hillsborough for the transfer of policing powers.

He recalled the deputy speaker of the Knesset telling him and Gary McMichaels that they knew the UDP and Sinn Fein didn’t trust each other – otherwise they would not need an agreement. With that agreement would come trust in time.

It was unfortunate that words such as “equality” had become nationalist words when logically they shouldn’t have been. In an unequal society, though, it was true that people had to give some things up to achieve equality.

The Good Friday Agreement may not be holy writ, but it is the architecture to move forward and build practicalities upon – it may not translate to other divided societies, but if our experience can help inform other situations, well and good.

Alan McBride was at a movie on the night the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and remembers parking up at the Stormont gates afterwards and walking up to Carson’s statue, watching the various press conferences.  He saw previous agreements as making peace between those not actually involved in the conflict, but this Agreement was taken into and agreed with the prisoners as well.

Alan’s wife had been murdered on the Shankill Road, but a few years later he reflected that in a different society where Westland and Ardoyne were still five minutes apart but people might actually go from one to the other, the murderers would not have been out trying to kill anyone.

He felt that those opposed to the current process were not nut cases, but rather expressing a genuine scepticism in society. He observed that people within the process like Gregory Campbell show how trust had failed to grow at all.

He recalled watching a promotional video for Northern Ireland around the time of the MTV awards, and said it sounded like a great place to go on holiday. 6 weeks later he was at the wake of another young person who had committed suicide – a very different place.

If the Agreement was going to work, it needed to work in that sort of situation. As Eleanor Roosevelt said while drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statements need to be true in the small places to be true anywhere. The message needed to go out to a larger audience. That the Agreement had come so far means that there was a lot further to go. 

Asked if the Executive was a zero sum game, Gerry said it was the best they had. Addressed recently by someone who wanted normal democracy, he pointed to the new councils and what happened where one side had a majority in terms of sharing power.

Asked particularly about crises, Gerry outlined his fears regarding the consequences of Tory policies on the poor, particularly with regard to the impact on working people who had lost jobs. He explained that Sinn Fein expected to find the funds to effectively maintain the present system from Stormont’s own resources.

Alan Meban noted that if the Executive falls apart, then direct rule would immediately result in the full implementation of welfare reform according to the GB model. Gerry considered that that position was effectively defeatist, that it was accepting that the Tories would not change their minds before even starting.

Alan McBride noted a major difference in the SNP being very strong against Westminster where NI is divided.

From the floor, Gerry was asked about educational achievement that saw the shipyard full of highly skilled workers, but the locals can’t get the GCSEs together for a job in KFC.  Gerry said that in taking the education portfolio, Sinn Fein was trying to tackle this, and he saw them and the DUP on the same side in this, despite the conflicts between the two parties.

Alan McBride spoke to a question about Integrated Education. He sent his daughter to the grammar school that she chose, but supports integrated education. He felt that we are where we are, but if NI were created today there would be a single secular education system.

Alan Meban went to a school which thought it was integrated, but wasn’t, but his daughter is at a state primary school whose demographics mean that is more integrated in practical terms. Shared was a better kind of “apartheid” (a word from the floor) than the status quo. The big structural issues are in the way of the smaller stuff – including shared and integrated education, and indeed the 11+.  If politicians wouldn’t tackle them, it would fall to other people to surprise them with ideas and solutions.

Gerry noted that shared campuses were an attempt at compromise, but he did believe in integrated education. North Belfast had seen CCMS schools fall in numbers and head towards coeducational status.  He noted that irrespective of type of school, if schools didn’t get results, they were in trouble, and that’s what parents were looking for.

A contributor asked about politicians breaking out from just pushing their own policies to listening to others to find a way through – whether parades, the past, education, health, or other issues, and bringing in voices from civic society. Gerry gave the examples of compromising over the 11+, the tension of the constitutional question hanging over the day to day practical business of serving the people, and dealing with Girdwood.

Alan McBride remembered the days of the civic forum and the perceived threat felt by Unionists, and observed how political interviews played to politicians’ own supporters. He told the story of how two politicians speaking at Greenbelt had spent an hour and a half in the same taxi, and had enjoyed spending the day watching them get on, listening to each other and finding solutions – but the unionist had asked him never to write about it in his Sunday Life column due to how his own people would have seen it.

Alan Meban wanted to see an end to the formulaic reaction and responses so often seen, especially with the frequency of elections. He wanted to see people get out of the comfort of the rut, and talk about entitlement and other people’s rights, including churches walking in other people’s shoes.

Harold Good was awarded the right of the last question by Colin, and chose to talk about uncomfortable conversations being required to move forward – and Protestants and unionists were the ones not willing, rather than the loyalists. He wanted to see Unionist leaders challenged to stop being so insecure and to get into the conversations.

One different thing about the Agreement was early release of prisoners. Brian Curran was asked about it not being justice, and he agreed – it was a new start for both sides.

Challenged for a couple steps to take forward. Gerry was concerned that people might go away thinking there was no hope, but there was definitely hope. NI is an example of how to come out of conflict, and however mundane, dialogue is the way out of it. His message was to keep up the dialogue – and the biggest negotiation was with your own people, not “the other side,” including stepping into other people’s shoes and helping people to take a small step as a start.

Alan McBride said the problem was a lack of trust and respect for diversity. His own community, the unionists, needed to show more generosity, while standing up for what they believe in and losing insecurity. Leadership was important, and he refused to believe that “the usual suspects” saying the same things all the time spoke for everyone – other voices were needed.

Alan Meban saw the Good Friday Agreement as a line in the sand. Seamus Mallon’s comment about the past being something to look back and learn from but not relive gave him his hope – small things by lots of people would be a great start.

Aperture festival continues at Corrymeela all weekend. Free shuttle buses are available from Ballycastle Town Centre.

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