Northern Ireland: twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement and the hand of history is elsewhere

A mural in East Belfast, overlooked by the shipyard

On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Stephen Baker looks back at the hopes it kindled, and asks, where do we stand now?

Much to the chagrin of restaurateurs and pub owners, Good Friday is a notoriously tricky time to buy a drink in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless 20 years ago, somehow, I was toasting the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with a glass of champagne. I still have the cork somewhere, stored away as a memento. Sentimental, I know. But I was optimistic. Things were changing. People were changing. The evidence seemed to be all around. There were regular public meetings and discussions on topics as diverse as democracy, policing, women in politics, and more. Refreshing new political voices had appeared – the Women’s Coalition and David Ervine among others. And a telegenic young Labour leader was in Number 10 promising ‘things can only get better’ after almost two decades of divisive, miserable Tory rule.

I had my reservations about the Good Friday deal, of course: not least that its consociational terms might entrench sectarian divisions. But this was trumped by a sense that supporting the Good Friday Agreement was an important step towards copper-fastening peace and the loyalist and republican ceasefires. I was also hopeful that freed from living under the pall of political violence some of us might be able to organise more effectively around issues like health, education, welfare, pay and working conditions. Back in 1998 these issues pressed harder on me than those of national identity and the border.

With hindsight I may have been too sanguine about the opportunities that the deal held out. I still insist that if it contributed to the diminution of violence in Northern Ireland then the Agreement was worth supporting, but it’s hard not to feel that the opportunity to build on the relative peace has being squandered. At present Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions are mothballed with no discernible sign of them being re-established. Indeed, the short history of the power sharing executive and assembly is one of stumbling from one hiatus to another, beset by longstanding enmity, scandals and corruption. Little wonder then that health and education are in need of greater repair now than twenty years ago. And to top it all, thanks to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the issue of the Irish border has returned in a way few us could have anticipated back on Good Friday in 1998.

Brexit has the potential to change everything. The Good Friday Agreement espoused a post-national ideal that was necessarily relaxed about sovereignty and borders. This was an attempt to accommodate otherwise antagonistic national allegiances. Coincidently it was compatible with a Northern Ireland’s incorporation into neoliberal globalisation. It is worth bearing in mind that the project of liberal peace building – not just in Northern Ireland but in other troubled and war-torn places – was as much an opportunity to subject them to market liberalisation as achieve peace and political accord. Wars, civil conflicts and catastrophes leave behind the sort of ‘blank canvases’ and spaces ripe for ‘regeneration’ and redevelopment that neoliberalism thrives upon. Northern Ireland was no exception.

But neoliberalism’s zeal for the untrammelled, global accumulation of capital has been felt and experienced negatively and as a loss by many people. Their discontent has been harnessed in the US, the EU and Britain by right-wing populists and demagogues advancing nativist politics and promising protectionist economics. It is hard to reconcile this sort of the politics with the ideas enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Its aspirations to partnership and equality, are not compatible with ‘taking back control’ and calls to restore spurious notions of greatness. That might explain why a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters rejected the call to Brexit. Yet despite this the region is setting out on an uncertain course to leave the EU, dragged along in the wake of English nationalism and free-market fundamentalism. If Tony Blair detected ‘the hand of history’ on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement, its divine-like presence was felt again, this time on the shoulder of the Nigel Farage as he declared the 16th June 2016 the UK’s ‘independence day’.

The DUP clearly sees itself as a winner in this new context, propping up an unpopular, decrepit Tory government, urging it on to Brexit with a cry of ‘no surrender’! Its gung ho attitude will delight the English Brexiteers and buccaneers impatient to embark on their bold global adventure to reboot the empire. But in the not so distant future, how will those same buccaneers view ‘our wee province’ that can’t pay its way in the world, with its irksome EU border? Or what if the ‘hand of history’ proves once more a fickle friend and visits Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the next general election?

Having effectively abandoned the region it was elected to serve to pursue its own narrow sectional interests and Westminster power-politics, the DUP leaves behind it a Northern Ireland that is deeply, socially divided; politically dysfunctional; suffering a democratic deficit; and economically moribund. All together this should be enough to condemn Northern Ireland to the status of an abject failure. But most damning of all, perhaps, is that too few people actually believe in Northern Ireland – I mean really believe! – believe in a way that would breath cultural and civic life into the place beyond the dry constitutional legislation that recognises Northern Ireland in law.

Something has occurred to me in recent times that twenty years ago I’d have found unthinkable. Northern Ireland doesn’t really exist, not any deep, emotional, imaginative sense: certainly not for nationalists who have no long-term vested interest in the place and whose cultural imaginations and allegiances exceed the six counties. But it doesn’t even really exist for those unionists for whom ‘Ulster’ is a surrogate for Northern Ireland; a province of their exclusivist cultural imaginations that bears no proper relation to the territory upon which they walk or the constitution they claim to defend. Simply put, not enough people care sufficiently about Northern Ireland to build a consensus around how we – all of us – will work, live, love and think here. Indeed, Northern Ireland would die of neglect if it weren’t for the British exchequer and the civil servants who administer it.

Twenty years ago when I toasted the Good Friday Agreement I took Northern Ireland for granted. Its birth in 1921 pre-dated my own in 1968 into a unionist family. Northern Ireland was then the only place I’d ever lived, and I assumed I’d always live in a place called Northern Ireland. But things are changing. People are changing.

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement I no longer take the existence of Northern Ireland for granted.

Stephen Baker

9 April 2018

Distance and democracy

Mural in Belfast, featuring campaigners including Martin Luther King

On 4 April, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Maurice looks at the US Civil Rights movement in this blogpost; and in a companion video piece, considers the legacy of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th anniversary also falls this year. 

How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? Can’t answer? Then you are not allowed to register to vote. Or you wouldn’t have been, at any rate, were you an African American in the Southern USA in the 1950s.

That was just one of the questions asked by white Southern electoral officials of such applicant voters (Manning, 2007). Among all the other, more obviously outrageous things – lynchings, casual racist violence, police brutality, job discrimination and so on – it is little details such as this that seem, somehow, most telling.

The white officials didn’t even have to pretend to be fair. They knew the question was unanswerable; they knew that even if the applicant gave an answer it would be the ‘wrong’ one;  they knew that all this was going through the mind of the African American citizen standing in front of them; and they knew that he or she was, to all intents and purposes, utterly powerless to do anything about it.

That someone could be disenfranchised – and thus have no say in the laws to which they were subject – on such a transparently unfair, patently unanswerable pretext, shows how securely white domination was enshrined in the legal and political system of the South.

Yet it was in this context of apparent powerlessness that one of the most powerful political movements of the twentieth century reached its apogee.

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King on 4 April it is worth remembering that the movement preceded him and was much broader than him.  There were immensely significant African American campaigns and campaigners long before King (think, for instance, of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, A Philip Randolph, WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and so on); there were countless others in his day, less famous but no less courageous or effective. Think of the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro Four. There have been countless others since – think Black Lives Matter.

But inevitably, and rightly, King will be celebrated this month. We may safely predict that much will be said about him as an icon of civil rights; much will be made of his charisma, his electrifying speeches, and his ‘dream’. Much will be made of his commitment to nonviolence. And again rightly so. There is no doubt that these are all of immense significance.

However, there is a danger that these very celebrations might obscure something still more significant about King: the forceful, radical, even revolutionary trajectory of his ethics and politics.

This was a man who marched many times in the face of violent, racist mobs; a man who was spied upon by US federal authorities, and lied about; who was confronted by institutionally racist law-enforcement officers; who was jailed 14 times; and who, after years of relentless activism, was finally shot dead, still in his thirties, thus cutting short a civil rights career that had lasted only 13 years. This was a campaigner whose views grew more radical as he learned from each experience. This was a man for whom nonviolence was anything but passive.

There is a temptation to absorb the image of King as the ‘dreamer’, and forget about this other side. In an article on King in the Observer of 25 March, for instance, Benjamin Zephaniah praises King’s legacy but says he himself leaned more toward Malcolm X because, as he puts it, “I think without people who were more militant we wouldn’t have the progress we have now. Look at the suffragettes: some of them had to die for what they believed. It was only when they started putting their lives on the line that real change was achieved”. Yet this comes in an article marking King’s assassination. King and others did, precisely, ‘put their lives on the line’.

And their achievements were immense: desegregation of transport, education, voting rights, equal housing legislation, among other breakthroughs, all achieved within the decade and a half of King’s active life.

Moreover, as King came to see the interconnections between the violence of the white supremacist system he battled in the Jim Crow era US south in the 1950s, and the systematic reproduction of economic deprivation in the cities of the north, he became ever more ‘militant’. He was shot, after all, on the eve of a march that formed part of his ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, an “explicitly class-based movement that questioned the verities of American capitalism” as Adam Fairclough puts it (Fairclough, 2001).

The one major failure in King’s vision, arguably, is his failure to make the connection to gender oppression. Whether King would eventually have learned from and accepted the feminist critique is a matter of speculation. It is certain that he should have done so, if only in order to be true to his own philosophy of democracy and nonviolence.

To be clear, there is nothing passive about an ethics of nonviolence. We have to take the full measure of what bell hooks calls ‘killing rage’, and let that justified fury drive today’s grassroots, democratic movements for justice and equality to connect the dots between the issues, and combine to overcome the systematic violence that allows the few to maintain dominance over the many.

There is, alas, still far too much to do – perhaps more than for many decades, given that white supremacists, patriarchs and the oil industry all currently have an ally in the White House.

But there are many movements flowing towards equality, democracy, sustainability, and countless numbers within those movements. We are many, to paraphrase Shelley, they are few.

More, in any case, than the bubbles in a bar of soap.

Maurice Macartney, 4 April 2018

 

Fairclough, Adam (2001), Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890 – 2000, Penguin, New York.

Marable, Manning (2007), Race Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, University Press of Mississippi (Kindle edition) loc 380.