‘The Good Friday Agreement’ by Siobhán Fenton: a reminder of the sheer scale of the mountain still to be climbed

“Twenty years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland continues to be a deeply divided society. Perhaps the most overt sign of this division lies in how few people in the region will live alongside people from the ‘other side’, instead preferring to live largely segregated lives. It’s something few in polite society will admit to. Most people in Belfast, if questioned, don’t want to talk about it on record, or if pushed simply utter magnanimous statements that of course they don’t have a problem with people from ‘the other community’ living next door.”

I was particularly struck by that paragraph (from Chapter 2: Divided Society) of Siobhán Fenton’s, The Good Friday Agreement, because I wrote a piece in the late autumn of 1998 in which I argued that the success of the Agreement would have to be judged “by how Northern Ireland looks in 20 years time; if we have become a genuinely integrated society in terms of living together and educating our children together; and whether there is significant evidence of a new political/electoral generation having challenged the same-old, same-old and replaced the ‘dreary steeples’ with exciting new architecture.”

So Fenton’s book is both a timely overview and re-evaluation of the Good Friday Agreement 20 years on: made more timely and relevant by the fact that the Assembly and Executive haven’t met for almost 19 months; that, electorally/politically, Northern Ireland is more polarised than ever; and the relationship between unionism and nationalism (and I don’t just mean the DUP and Sinn Féin, by the way) worse than it has been for a very long time.

But, as she notes in her conclusion, “…while the spirit of compromise that was demonstrated by both sides on 10 April 1998 feels distant and unlikely to be replicated in the present day…the Agreement is likely to endure as the foundational text for Northern Ireland, imperfect as it is, in the absence of credible alternatives.”

I don’t actually agree with her about the ‘spirit of compromise’ in April 1998, because I think Trimble’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ was a more accurate reading of the real mood at the time. And I think she also misses the significance of the fact that in the first election to the Assembly (June 25, 1998), pro-Agreement unionism barely scraped a majority; leaving Trimble badly damaged, incapable of cutting a deal with Sinn Féin (they didn’t believe he could sell it to his party) and at the mercy of the DUP – which switched tactics and began to talk of securing a better, fairer deal to replace Trimble’s ‘rollover unionism’.

Those quibbles aside, she still manages to hit a significant number of nails on the head when it comes to explaining why the Agreement has failed to deliver. The chapter on Intergenerational Trauma is, I think, of particular importance, not least because of her own memories, as a three-year-old, of seeing a man shot dead by the IRA.

“As I was so young when it happened, it is unlikely that my memories of that evening have any basis in fact at all. I assume that the memory I have is at best a memory of a memory, bastardised fusions of what limited memory I may have had mixed with my parents’ own subsequent retellings of events on the rare occasions that we have discussed it.”

It is the conclusion she draws from her personal memory, along with the memories of those she has talked to, which is crucial, though:

“As the children and grandchildren of these victims come of age, it is increasingly clear that the issue is not one that can be ignored in the hope that the trauma will die out with the traumatised. Rather, as the mental health of victims and their families goes untreated, it continues to live on in a generation freshly traumatised not by the conflict itself but by our failure to deal with the past.”

Fenton is right. In Northern Ireland the past is always still in front of us.

She makes similarly important observations about equality, human rights, ongoing divisions, cold-case murders, legacy and power-sharing: problems which, unless resolved – as opposed to being the subject of endless commissions and consultations – will prevent the Agreement from ever delivering on whatever hope actually existed in 1998. There had been another moment of optimism in May 2007, when Paisley and McGuinness kick started their Chuckle Brothers relationship; but that moment faltered fairly quickly, before being snuffed out entirely when McGuinness’s resignation letter in January 2017 exposed the nature of the sham at the heart of the DUP/SF relationship and crashed the institutions.

What would have happened if Brexit and RHI hadn’t muddied the waters is unclear; not least because Fenton might have been writing against the background of an Assembly which was still functioning. But – and it is a big but – I don’t think it would have altered either her content or the conclusions all that much. Yes, we are – mostly – free from violence and terrorism (which is the most important benefit of the Agreement); yet we haven’t really moved on all that much, let alone solved/resolved problems which have dogged us since Northern Ireland was created in 1921 (which is the most important failing of the Agreement).

This very readable, thoughtful book reminds us of the sheer scale of the mountain still to be climbed in Northern Ireland. More worryingly, though, it left me with the feeling (although that may be more to do with my professional cynicism than with Fenton’s own belief) that we haven’t a hope in hell of getting much beyond first base on the mountain.

The Good Friday Agreement by Siobhán Fenton is published by Biteback Publishing.

See also: Gladys Ganiel’s review