Whatever Happened to the Good Friday Agreement? Review of Siobhán Fenton’s New Book

Siobhán Fenton’s somewhat misleadingly-titled new book, The Good Friday Agreement makes for sobering reading. The aim of the book is to take stock of how far Northern Ireland has come since the 1998 Agreement, making it less about the Agreement itself than it is about the failure to implement it.

Indeed, several times throughout, Fenton observes that it is not the Agreement that has failed. Rather it is Northern Ireland’s politicians who have ‘failed the Agreement.’

The Good Friday Agreement is a timely analysis of just how Northern Ireland politics have gone off the rails, especially in the years leading up to and following the Brexit referendum.

A more appropriate title might have been Whatever Happened to the Good Friday Agreement?, which would have underlined Fenton’s main point: that the spirit and in some cases the letter of the Agreement have been violated, to the detriment of all who live in Northern Ireland.

This is particularly evident when she points out that the Petition of Concern, which was intended to prevent groups from having their rights violated, has been repeatedly used to deny rights to minorities such as LGBT people seeking marriage equality.

The book also offers a valuable gender perspective on the shortcomings of post-Agreement Northern Ireland. Unlike most mainstream journalists, Fenton delves into the complexities of how the Troubles impacted women differently. To give just one example, Fenton broaches the problem of Northern Ireland’s high rates of domestic violence, linking this to the Troubles and their legacy. She provides careful analysis of how the involvement of men in violence – whether paramilitary or as members of security forces – not only created stresses that spilled over into family life, but made the means of violence (such as personal protection weapons) more readily available for use inside the home.  She points out that women who experienced domestic violence as a result or by-product of the Troubles do not easily fit into Northern Ireland’s ‘official’ definition of a victim, meaning that their suffering continues to be overlooked.

Fenton is a broadcast journalist for the BBC, covering Northern Ireland news and current affairs. She grew up in Northern Ireland, her parents having moved back in 1994 when she was three-years-old. Her mother is from a Northern Ireland Catholic background and her father is English, which created its own problems for Fenton as she tried to locate herself within Northern Ireland’s socially-divided landscape.

So in some ways, Fenton is one of the generation who grew up with very few or no memories of the ‘bad old days.’ She recognises that many of her peers are turned off from politics, frustrated that Northern Ireland’s sectarian political structures prevent progress on issues they care about, such as the right for LGBT people to marry or a relaxation of abortion law.

The 1994 ceasefires are what prompted her parents to return. But shortly after they moved back the whole family, including three-year-old Siobhán, witnessed an IRA execution on a Belfast street. Fenton admits that her own memories of this event are fantastical: she has an image in her mind of her mother trying to scoop brains back into the man’s head, which her mother assures her never happened (pp. 139-141). Fenton shares this story to open her chapter on Inter-Generational Trauma. This chapter should be a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that the legacy of the Troubles will be resolved by waiting for those who experienced them to simply die. In 2017, Fenton reports, the WAVE Trauma Centre had children as young as six-years-old displaying signs of Troubles-related trauma (p. 144).

The book is appropriate for an audience that knows little about Northern Ireland. This could include the curious Americans who might scoop it off the shelf while on holidays, the great British public (Fenton reminds us several times that ‘what is the DUP’ shot to near the top of the most-Googled terms in the UK after the party helped the Conservatives form a Government in 2017), or even the young people of Fenton’s generation from Northern Ireland who have grown up trying to avoid politics.

But apart from the first chapter (‘A Brief History of the Troubles’), which covers familiar ground, even readers who follow Northern Ireland’s contemporary politics closely can benefit from Fenton’s analysis in the remaining chapters: Divided Society, Cold-Case Murders, Intergenerational Trauma, Equality and Human Rights, Brexit, and Power-Sharing.

There are few places where one author has brought together so many of the thorniest issues so comprehensively – yet succinctly.

In truth, pondering this catalogue of problems inspires a certain despair. But Fenton is quick to remind us that the Good Friday Agreement itself seemed to emerge miraculously from an even more despairing situation – providing a small glimmer of hope that is just as valuable as her unflinching analysis of the challenges that remain.

The Good Friday Agreement (2018) is published by Biteback Publishing at £12.99, with a kindle version available for £6.99.