Let’s celebrate the Belfast Agreement’s successes but recognise that Biden’s content free visit also highlights it failings…

“What’s the difference between a bug in a program and a misunderstanding?”

— Monica Anderson

I watched the events of Good Friday 1998 in the old cottage we rented off a local estate in Dorset. My abiding memory though was an audio tape that one of my Irish students brought to the class I ran on Tuesday nights some weeks after the event itself.

On one side were programmes he’d taped via satellite of Raidio na Gaeltachta for the class, on the other was the aftermath of that Good Friday morning when Northern Ireland’s old constitutional warriors gushed generosity towards each other.

John Taylor stood out mostly in my mind, I think because he was one from whom I least expected to hear such largesse. As I grew up at home he always seemed the hard man within official Unionism as we called it back then. He had fair call to be.

Back in the worst year of the Troubles he’d been hit five times in the neck and head when an official IRA gang had sprayed his car with bullets. His joy in the moment and his sincere gratitude towards George Mitchell was particularly affecting.

This was not because the agreement would end the war (that was already presaged in the ongoing ceasefires by the provisionals and their loyalist enemies), but rather see the demise of what Fintan O’Toole calls the “dead weight of insane inertia”.

In effect, the Troubles were contained after 1975 to the point where most people in Northern Ireland outside what became known as the sectarian ghettos which were the wellspring of violent paramilitary activism enjoyed relatively normal lives.

It was in anticipation of such a space that the Sunningdale agreement had been forged some twenty years before, part of a conjuring act that O’Toole argues:

…was to wipe out the memory that all of this had indeed been agreed long before and to allow Sinn Féin and the loyalists to present it to their own constituents as new – and thus claim great breakthroughs that justified doing the deal now.

Not everyone could forbear from pointing out that this was, as the SDLP’s doughty Seamus Mallon, put it, “Sunningdale for slow learners”. And for those who did hold their tongues, there was a great deal to swallow.

Thus – and there have been long-term consequences to this – Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were allowed to claim to their members and supporters that the IRA’s “armed struggle” had been vindicated because the Brits had now been forced to concede that Northern Ireland is not an integral part of the UK.

But the British had in fact put this precise position into law in 1973. If this was the price for ending its armed campaign, all the suffering over almost a quarter of a century was superfluous.

With regard to signing of the Agreement, Mitchell warned it was not an end but a beginning. I certainly stemmed the Troubles, but did not end terrorism or paramilitary activities. Owen Polley writing in CapX argues that things are far from perfect:

For many people across both communities, the most important thing about the Agreement was that it recognised violence was not a legitimate way to resolve disputes about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. As a consequence, they expected paramilitary groups to disappear, give up their weapons and show regret for the trauma they had caused over three decades.

In the intervening 25 years, the province has indeed remained relatively peaceful and stable, if you ignore the activities of ‘dissident’ IRA splinter groups, punishment attacks by both republicans and loyalists and the criminal feuds that Mo Mowlam once dismissed as ‘internal housekeeping’.

Indeed. Notable examples from the last relatively peaceful ten years, include…

  • April 18, 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry, Northern Ireland. The New IRA, a dissident republican group, claimed responsibility for the killing, which sparked widespread outrage and condemnation.
  • January 27, 2019, Ian Ogle, a community worker and father of two, was attacked and stabbed to death in East Belfast. The killing was believed to have been carried out by members of the East Belfast UVF.
  • December 4, 2018, Jim Donegan, a 43-year-old man, was shot dead while waiting to pick up his son from school in West Belfast. The killing was believed to be part of a feud between two criminal gangs operating in the area.
  • May 28, 2017, Colin Horner, a former member of the UVF, was shot dead in a supermarket car park in Bangor, County Down. The killing was believed to be part of a feud between rival factions of the UVF.
  • August 16, 2016, William Young, a 46-year-old father of three, was shot dead in the loyalist Tigers Bay area of North Belfast. The killing was believed to have been carried out by members of the UDA.
  • January 5, 2015, Brian McIlhagga was beaten and shot dead outside a house in Ballymoney, County Antrim. The killing was believed to have been carried out by members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
  • August 12, 2015, Kevin McGuigan, a former IRA member, was shot dead outside his home in Belfast. The killing was widely believed to be part of a feud between former IRA members and members of the Provisional IRA who were believed to be still active.
  • April 2, 2011, Constable Ronan Kerr, a young Catholic police officer, was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Omagh. The Continuity IRA, a dissident republican group, claimed responsibility for the attack, widely condemned by politicians and community leaders from all sides.
  • February 22, 2010, a car bomb exploded outside the courthouse in the town of Newry, County Armagh, injuring 30 people by the Real IRA, a dissident republican group opposed to the peace process.
  • May 28, 2010, Bobby Moffett, a former loyalist paramilitary leader, was shot dead on the Shankill Road in Belfast, part of a feud between rival factions of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

To put this in perspective, there were at least 95 gang-related homicides in the Republic between 2010 and 2020, although records show that in recent years that figure (which was running at as much as 20 a year) has fallen dramatically.

The Northern peace dividend has been slow in coming, not least because the lassitude of a political class now dominated by two parties whose bases each remain distrustful of each other, but in spite of that the economy has been improving.

Progress has been less the fruit of our stunted politics and more the work of a greater pact working its way through society. Relatively peace has seen some major changes, not least in the easing of the intolerable conditions imposed by the conflict:

  • In 1997 the membership of locally recruited security forces was 20458 by 2019 it was 7820 and since 1990 Catholic membership of the police has grown from a mere 7.7% to 32.1%
  • In 1972 nearly 5000 sustained conflict related injuries this fell in 2018 to less than 100.
  • In 1972 1313 firearms were seized compared to 36 in 2018
  • Between 1972 and 2019 the capture of explosive dropped from 18819kgs to 1.1kgs, shooting incidents fell from 10631 to 41 in 2019 and deaths from 480 to 3
  • Since 2009 Catholic and Protestant confidence in the PSNI has grown from 55 to 73% and 57 to 76% respectively

Even as the institutions of the GFA have withered into disuse (we’ve had no government at Stormont for five out of the last seven years) Northern Irish society has stabilised and is starting to enjoy a relatively prosperous peace dividend:

  • A 43% increase in employment has seen the rate of unemployment fall from 8% in 1998 to 2.5% in 2020.
  • While London has the highest start-up rate in the country, it is entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland who are the most likely to reach £1m turnover within three years
  • Belfast is in the top 10 tech cities of the future ahead of Madrid, Frankfurt, Zurich, Milan and Cambridge
  • Belfast is ranked fifth best mid-sized ‘European cities of the future’; and third for economic potential, behind only Zurich and Edinburgh
  • Northern Ireland has the highest-achieving primary school pupils in Europe in major international tests in maths. It is also the sixth best at maths in the world

You can tell from the coverage of some of the peace babies who are now 25 that peace has opened doors for them, that they love the place they grew up in ways that echo the feelings of older generations, but with the darker associations of earlier times.

But there are also some – primarily from those working class areas where as Malachi O’Doherty noted in his great memoir, The Telling Year, the paramilitary leaders had ‘enjoyed their war’, where the peace babies got a particularly raw deal.

Diarmuid Ferriter appropriately quotes the late Lyra McKee:

…many “were consumed by the memories and loaded their children with them, like bags on a mule… We, the elders believed, would never see or know war the way they had. But we did. We just saw it through their eyes… We did get the peace, or something close to it. All those who’d caused carnage in the decades before got the money… My generation got f***ed over… I don’t want a united Ireland or a stronger union. I just want a better life.”

This “loading” is reflected in two ways. One in the muddled revisionism exemplified in statements like that from the new First Minister Elect Michelle O’Neill that the Provisionals had no alternative but to butcher their way to the negotiation table.

The other is how suivide rates (low during the Troubles) became prevalent in younger generations afterwards. As victims of paramilitary violence are routinely asked to stop composing and move on, these youngsters have been ignored for the sake of maintaining a comfort zone for ‘ex combatants’.

The leadership of Hume and Trimble twenty five years ago remains a rebuke to such nostrums. Yet in the passage of time such distortions are now commonplace, and it is the victims of such fruitless violence who are asked to pay over and over again.

Micheál Martin remains one of the few senior politicians still prominent in Irish political life notes that one of the greatest dangers is that we underestimate what it took to get the Belfast Agreement over the line:

Looking back, it could seem that reaching the Good Friday agreement was inevitable. That was not the case. The path to the agreement was winding, lasting many years. It was a path marked by ceasefires and broken ceasefires, walkouts and set pieces, and all against the backdrop of ceaseless, bloody violence. The agreement talks themselves almost collapsed in the final days and hours, only to be brought over the line by all the participants making difficult choices and finding a balance with which all could live.

But here are the “political leaders who will assume their responsibilities and who can decide to partner, or not, with us on new initiatives”? Even as the NI electorate expresses increasing indifference towards unity and union, the inertia seems to grow.

The awkward truth is that the US President’s fleeting visit to Belfast today has no real meaningful political function. He will meet the local party leaders but in private, but they won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know.

Insofar as Northern Ireland is becoming more prosperous and a desirable place to live (and not just for southerners like my dad as an economic refuge from southern poverty) we do have a relatively stable peace. That’s certainly not nothing.

But in our precarious politics the old fantasies of war, ie dominance of the other, live on in different ways within the dominant parties whose ideological inflexibilities have all but wrecked the democratic institutions founded in the negotiations of 1998.

George Mitchell said before the ink was dry, that the Belfast Agreement should be seen as a living agreement. The institutions, adjusted at St Andrews have offered extreme tribalism a stress free zone in which it can survive without significant challenge.

What they lack is the metabolic flexibility that comes from being tested over and over on things that matter more to the demos (jobs, education, health and welfare all are seen as up to 20 times more important pre-occupations) than the constitution.

Time and again the adjustments signed off at St Andrews have reduced every election to one question: who gets to be top dog, Orange or Green? As Groundhog days go, there are worse places than our own Punxsatawney these days to be stuck in a loop.

The dragonfly
can’t quite land
on that blade of grass.
— Matsuo Basho


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