Northern Ireland has “had a political process at the cost of a peace process”, believes Clare Bailey MLA, the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. She is highly critical of the limited progress since the Good Friday Agreement 21 years ago and the lack of real social integration. She was speaking in the latest Forward Together podcast.
Clare questions who has benefited since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. “Certainly within the working class and the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland and those communities – they certainly haven’t seen a pay-off,” she argues. Clare references the lack of government, squeezed budgets, welfare reform, “soaring levels of poverty” and “more people dying by suicide since the signing of the Good Friday agreement than were ever killed in the troubles. We have intergenerational trauma.”
She lists her frustrations with lack of progress. “We have more peace walls in Northern Ireland now than we did during the conflict. Our education system hasn’t moved on. Back in 1981, I was one of the first 28 pupils to attend Lagan [integrated] College when it first opened. There were protests at the door of the school. Our buses were smashed and we were identified by our uniforms…. But yet here we are almost 38 years later with only 65 of our schools both primary and post primary that are under the integrated banner…. Over the past 20 years I’ve seen little attempt at integration.”
Clare adds that it is wrong to believe that we should wait for politics and the economy to improve before civic society is strengthened. “We need to hear a civic voice,” she urges, adding that “citizens’ assemblies [are] an excellent model to start engaging with.”
She makes clear her frustration with elements of mainstream British and Northern Irish politics. “We have hardline Brexiteers who are pushing for a no deal Brexit and openly admitting that they’d never even read the Good Friday Agreement. And nationalist parties whose raison d’être has always been about a united Ireland, they’ve reached this point and [they are] still not willing to put their ideas on the table of what that is.”
This context, she suggests, is dangerous. “We are still a deeply traumatised society. It doesn’t take much to just scratch those open wounds. People are still living with fear and it’s getting worse because we’re not dealing with it.”
As far as Clare is concerned, the Assembly – when functioning – is itself an expression of sectarian division. “I have to designate myself as either a nationalist or a unionist. And if I don’t agree with either, or don’t identify as either, I’m automatically designated as ‘an other’. I designated myself as a feminist when I was first elected and the computer does not compute. So I am automatically an ‘other’. So therefore my ‘other’ vote in some Assembly debates is lesser than that of a nationalist or a unionist. And it’s in those types of situations I mean by saying sectarianism has been written into the heart of the institutions.”
For the future, the challenge of climate change is the most important issue. “If we want a united Ireland, we need to talk about transformation and we need to be in no doubt whatsoever that a new Ireland is coming. And she’s on her way and she’s called climate chaos. We’ve been given 12 years to the point of no return from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – when, if we do not radically change our lifestyles, our behaviours, then the damage that will be done will be irreparable. So we will be forced into renegotiating who we are on this island. How do we get along. What our relationships are. But more importantly, how we do business together. So I am in no doubt that a new Ireland is coming, but I don’t believe that it’s the one many people are thinking of.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.