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Good Friday and the wait for a new politics in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's peace process may be upheld as an international "model", but it still has a long way to go in shifting identities away from tribalism and towards mutual recognition. 

David Mitchell
15 April 2015
Stormont

Stormont Parliament Buildings, the home of the Northern Irish Assembly. Flickr/Amanda Slater. Some rights reserved.

On Saturday, 11 April, 1998, the Irish Times announced the multi-party agreement reached in Belfast the day before with the headline “Easter 1998”. It was, of course, a factual statement: the negotiators had missed the Holy Thursday midnight deadline and the document had been finalised on Good Friday. However, to those well versed in Irish history, the headline had a greater depth of meaning.

The rebellion led by Patrick Pearse against the British in April 1916 is often referred to as “Easter 1916”. The Irish Times’ implication was that the 1998 Agreement could be as significant a turning point in the centuries-long conflict as Pearse’s Rising. Yet, at the same time, the Irish Times was drawing attention to the dramatic contrast between the natures and meanings of the two events.

Pearse, a fervent Catholic, imagined himself as a Christ figure, shedding his (and others’) blood for the redemption of the Irish people during the very season in which Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ. Eastertide 1998 had a different theological resonance. This time, the sacrifice was not of blood but of enmity and hatred, or at least of maximal political demands. It appeared to be an historic compromise that heralded new relationships, a society resurrected from the violent past and set free for the future. In sum, the headline captured the twin hopes that many people placed in the Agreement in its immediate aftermath: that it would be historic in significance and reconciliatory in effect.

The historic nature of the Agreement, at least, is beyond doubt. Despite dramatic changes in the party-political landscape and some relatively minor reforms contained in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed as broadly set out on 10 April 1998. However, seventeen years on, the accord has not yet brought the kind of inter-communal reconciliation that many assumed was its ultimate purpose.

Identity politics

Sporadic street violence, paramilitary attacks, conflict over symbols, parades and “dealing with the past”,  as well as residential and educational segregation, have all continued, despite the operation of the Good Friday institutions, while those institutions themselves have frequently been paralysed by Orange versus Green disputes.

Whether anything fundamental about Northern Ireland politics has really changed since 1998 was in sharp focus yet again after the recent Westminster election pact between the Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party, the two largest pro-British parties. The deal, designed to avoid splitting the unionist vote in four marginal constituencies, was widely condemned as sectarian – evidence that unionists, hankering after the Protestant privilege of the past, will do anything to keep out the other side.

For unionists, it was simply a pragmatic response to ensure that pro-Union voters did not lose out in the “winner takes all” Westminster system. (Sinn Féin, the main Irish nationalist party, incidentally, was rebuffed by the SDLP in its attempts to form a rival pact on the grounds that the idea was sectarian). Sectarian or not, the pact at least demonstrated how the constitutional issue, allied to identity politics, continues to trump all other issues and cleavages.

This is not what was meant to happen. The rationale of the Agreement was that the national question could be “parked” by the principle of consent i.e. everyone agrees that Northern Ireland remains in the UK for now and that this can change in the future if a majority wish. In the meantime, both sides get on with building a united and prosperous society. The Agreement allowed unionists and nationalists to retain their national aspirations but did not allow either side to realise those aspirations without taking account of the identity and fears of the other side.

Unionists, in order to preserve the Union, would have to ensure that Northern Ireland was a place to which nationalists could feel belonging, while nationalists, to attain Irish unity, would have to convince unionists that they had something to gain, or at least nothing to fear, from a united Ireland. Parties would have to “compete for mutual assurance” rather than “compete in mutual attrition”, as the SDLP’s Mark Durkan, one of the Agreement’s chief architects, puts it.

An international model?

Yet instead of undertaking the self-examination and change that might win over those of a different political point of view, unionists and nationalists have, to a great extent, nursed their own wounded identities and defended their borders. The repeated detonation of disputes stemming from the Troubles (arms decommissioning, police reform, demilitarisation, controversial commemorations, “on-the-runs”, enquiries, including or excluding paramilitary-linked parties) has worked against the unwinding of conflict identities and stoked the suspicion that preferred constitutional futures are best guaranteed, not through generosity and rational arguments as the Agreement intended, but through communal solidarity and power. As a result, the growth of non-ethnic party politics has been stunted.

Moreover, given the future constitutional uncertainty, many in Northern Ireland have calculated that “dealing with the past” really means dealing with the future, and that any ground given on the past is a zero-sum loss that only assists the other side in pursuing its constitutional ideal. The Agreement drew a moral equivalence between the two sides which was threatening to both. Now, victories on the past boost morale in the present and enhance the odds for the future. Or so it is thought.

A pall of negativity has rested on the Northern Irish political scene at least since the Belfast City Hall flag protests began in late 2012. There has been failure to make substantive progress on the three issues which are symptomatic of the underlying and ongoing identity conflict: flags, parades and the past. Logjam in Stormont is mirrored by logjam in a parading dispute in North Belfast. Question marks hang over Northern Ireland’s acquired status as an international model for conflict resolution. While the Executive has struggled with conflict legacy matters, many of the famous “bread-and-butter” issues have also flummoxed it, with impasses in relation to a raft of policy areas, a state of affairs not eased by worsening austerity. And the public has been paying attention. According to the 2013 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey the proportion of people who think relations between Protestants and Catholics are better now than five years ago has fallen from sixty-five percent in 2007 to forty-five percent in 2013.

A long wait

Yet the weight of evidence suggests that the political progress that has been made is irreversible. The Agreement was the outworking of twin processes: strengthening ties between the evolving British and Irish states, and learning on the part of the parties in Northern Ireland that the long-imagined, exclusivist utopias were precisely that – utopian. The difficulties of implementing the Agreement were not inevitable, but neither were they surprising after decades of violence which left few families untouched.  That violence, so polarising during the “Troubles”, has been in continuous, if at times, faltering, decline since 1998.

It follows that a sustained period of peace and political stability will further “de-escalate” identities away from tribalism in the direction of mutual recognition and trust. The wait, however, for a truly new politics in which the Orange-Green divide is obscured by new alliances and issues, may be a long one.

The piece is an edited extract from 'Politics and Peace in Northern Ireland: Political Parties and the Implementation of the 1998 Agreement', by David Mitchell, to be published in September 2015 by Manchester University Press.

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