Good Friday 10 years on: Paradox of Belfast remains unresolved

Conn Corrigan
10 April 2008

Article: The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement offers an opportunity of examining how far Northern Ireland has come – and how far it has yet to go (part of an OK trilogy)


Conn Corrigan (New York, Columbia School of Journalism): Last month, I visited Northern Ireland for a few days. A friend, who has been there many times during the Troubles, remembered a time when our hotel, the Europa (apparently the most bombed hotel in Europe), had metal detectors inside and sandbags outside. During the Troubles, this hotel was a favourite location for the many journalists sent to cover the conflict - but when we were there, the only people who caught the eye were a group of teenagers in the bar, getting their picture taken with Basshunter, a Swedish DJ who was in town for a concert.

There is no real reason for foreign correspondents to come to Northern Ireland anymore - they have gone home, a casualty of the peace process. Local journalists perhaps haven't been so lucky - after the restoration of Stormont in May 2007, when the DUP's Ian Paisley finally agreed to share power with Sinn Fein, one veteran Belfast hack was alleged to have said: "That's it. It's fucking flower shows for us now on."

The restoration of powersharing in May last year could be regarded as the high point of the peace process to date. Although the phrase "historic moment" had become something of a cliché in Northern Ireland of late , only the most cynical soul would have been unmoved by the sight of Ian Paisley, once a Protestant firebrand cleric, and Martin McGuinnnes, a former leader of the IRA, agreeing to work together for Northern Ireland, ending centuries of conflict. That moment's lineage can be traced back to the Belfast Agreement, whose tenth anniversary falls today.

In the recent weeks, to celebrate this anniversary, The Irish Times commissioned some of the key players involved in the peace process to reflect on Northern Ireland, ten years on. John Hume, who led the SDLP when the agreement was signed, wrote that "the Belfast Agreement signalled the beginning of a new dawn in Irish history." Tony Blair said "The Northern Ireland politicians who negotiated that agreement can take much pride in their achievement." And Bill Clinton, whose wife has recently been drawing attention to (or perhaps exaggerating) her role in the peace process, said: "The Irish peace has inspired a world weary of wars to keep searching for common ground."

It seems easy now, ten years on, to celebrate those who worked to bring about the Belfast Agreement - who have disproved the predictions of many cynics who said it could never happen, some of whom couldn't disguise their glee when the process ran into difficulty. And the fact that Swedish DJs are now more common than war correspondents in the Europa is evidence of their achievements. But it would be foolish to get carried away.

Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided place. Research carried out by Peter Shirlow from the University of Ulster found that Protestants and Catholics still seem to live in a kind of self-imposed apartheid. A 2002 study, in which 4,800 households in dozens of estates in Belfast were surveyed, made for a depressing read: 68% of young people said that had never had a meaningful conversation with a member of other community, while 62% of all people felt that community relations had actually gotten worse since 1994, the year of the first IRA ceasefire.

Belfast's segregation is something that confronts you head on. When I was there, I took a cab to met a youth worker in the Protestant neighbourhood of Shankill, in West Belfast, which was divided from the rest of the Catholic area by a number of so-called "peace lines," walls erected to keep the two communities apart (as Robin Wilson says below, there are nearly 50 of these across Northern Ireland). What should have been a twominute cab drive from one end of Conway Street to the other became a 15 minute crawl, as my driver weaved in and out of laneways and bypassed blocked off roads.

"I work with Protestants," said Danny Ferris, 57, a Catholic carpenter from West Belfast, when asked about his experience of the "other" community. "But I wouldn't want them over to my house. They wouldn't come anyway...If you walk into certain areas and they sense you are a stranger, you are in trouble. It's a ghetto mentality."

His comments are archetypal. This a mentality is remarkably resilient. The Protestant community, in particular, has dug its heels in over the last ten years, appearing fearful of being overrun by the Catholic minority. As a result, it has turned in it on itself, occasionally lashing out in a very ugly manner. Indeed, the most notable incidents of violence in Northern Ireland in the last ten years have come from the loyalist side. In 2001 and again in 2002, for example, the Holy Cross dispute in Ardoyne received international press attention, as the community aired its grievances (some of which, undoubtedly were legitimate) by preventing Catholic school girls as young as four from walking to class.

In a 2002, there was a loyalist feud between members of the UDA, and another one in 2005, between members of the UVF and LVF. That same year, when an Orange Order parade in Whiterock, north Belfast, was re-routed - by less than 100 metres - the result was some of worse rioting in Northern Ireland's recent history. "Protestant alienation", a phrase used to describe Protestant unease with the peace process that has gained considerable currency over the last few years, was one of the explanations cited for these riots, and for various other episodes in which this community erupted into violence.

This phrase stems from a common perception that "all the gains" from the last 10 years were going the way of the Catholic side, and that the Protestant community wasn't seeing the "peace dividend." A recent study by a group of academics from Queen's University has confirmed that Catholics have made significant inroads into the workforce, are now more likely to have degrees than Protestants, and less likely to leave school without any qualifications. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a more deprived part of Northern Ireland, than the Protestant Shankill.

And Dawn Purvis, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF, claims that Ian Paisley's DUP stoked this unease, by constantly telling them that the Belfast Agreement was a bad deal for them. "Paisley was saying that Trimble was not getting a fair deal for Protestants," she said. "So you had the perception that Protestants were losing and Catholics were gaining. Now if you sat a Protestant down and asked, ‘What have you lost?,' they'd find that very difficult to answer."

However, the DUP has moderated its tone since going into power with Sinn Fein. And Purvis said that she doesn't hear the same levels of discontent on the streets in the same way she did a few years ago. The Rev. Jim Rea, a Methodist minister in the Shankill, said in an interview last month: "[Northern Ireland] is a lot better than what it used to be. It's a lot more relaxed now." According to Rea, "If you are going to be attacked by someone, it's likely to be by someone from your own community."

Things then, in Northern Ireland, while not entirely rosy, are looking up. Like any other part of Britain (or indeed Ireland), it has its share of social problems, such as drugs, suicide and poverty. The point is, however, that these are somewhat "normal" problems - in a way that bombings weren't.

But the constitutional question, unlike the IRA, hasn't gone away, you know. The ultimate success and paradox of the Belfast Agreement has always been its ability to convince two groups of people of two different things: unionists, that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland was secure; republicans and nationalists, that a united Ireland was possible through political, non-violent means.

In an interview last month, Gerry Adams was asked about how realistic he thought a united Ireland was. "I think it's very realistic," he said. "Look at what happens at this minute in terms of the all-Ireland nature of the agreement. The argument, understandable and ultimately, to treat the island of as a single island economy - unionism has bought into that, big time."

But surely the fact that unionists want to have the same corporation tax as the republic, which is less than half that of what it is for the UK, doesn't mean they are clamouring to get into a united Ireland? In fact, it is arguable that as Catholics become more and more comfortable in Northern Ireland, a united Ireland is becoming a more distant prospect. The only way it could happen is if large numbers of Protestants start voting for either Sinn Fein or the SDLP, or if the DUP and the UUP replace their ‘U's with ‘R's for republican. The second possibility is laughable, the first, distinctly unlikely.

Adams said he recognises the task in front of him. "The big challenge for us, as republicans and as nationalists," he said, "is to persuade enough unionists that not only does it make sense economically, or practically, but that their futures are secure and their rights underpinned in an all Ireland dispensation, rather than in the strange relationship which the British maintain."

Adams sold the Belfast Agreement to the republican movement on the basis that it would be a means to secure a united Ireland - but unfortunately for him, unionists don't appear as if they are in any hurry to terminate this "strange relationship" with Britain, in search of a new romance down South.

The Good Friday Agreement, therefore, has brought undoubted - if incomplete - benefits to Northern Ireland. But at its heart a constitutional paradox remains - one that doesn't look like it will be resolved any time soon.

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