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