It’s our generation’s responsibility

20 years after the Good Friday Agreement was ratified by dual referenda, Peter Madden and Conleth Burns reflect on the journey travelled so far and the challenges ahead with former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, Sir Jonathan Phillips

Protestors against a hard border (March 2017)

In the weeks running up to the referendum, copies of the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement were sent to every home in Northern Ireland, each branded with the words: “It’s Your Decision”. On Friday, 22 over two million people across the north of Ireland made that decision to endorse the Agreement. Years of negotiation – involving the political parties of Northern Ireland and the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland – had finally resulted in an international peace agreement. From 1968 until 1998, Northern Ireland had suffered from conflict over issues of civil rights, identity and, the constitutional position: in one corner of the British Isles, over 3,600 were killed in what is commonly known as ‘the Troubles’. The Agreement was not a perfect settlement, but many believed that it was the best means to achieve a peaceful society.

We had not yet reached our first birthday when the Agreement was endorsed by the people of Ireland. Two decades later, young people like us are frustrated: frustrated with the absence of devolved government for almost 500 days; frustrated with the increasingly balkanised nature of politics and rhetoric; frustrated with the failure to deliver a truly peaceful society. It is not only young people who are frustrated – polling from LucidTalk (published in the Belfast Telegraph in June 2017) revealed that over 60% of the local community in Northern Ireland wanted to see reform to the system of government.

With this context in mind, we sat down with Sir Jonathan Phillips to reflect on Northern Ireland’s journey in the last twenty years – where have we come from, where are we now, and where is it that we are going?

Drawing from his wealth of experience, Phillips empathises that the current team of negotiators tasked with restoring devolved government are stuck “between a rock and a hard place”. His arrival in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) as Permanent Secretary in 2002 had been a baptism of fire. Within weeks the Assembly collapsed, fundamentally because IRA weapons had not been decommissioned. Over the next eight years, he worked with all stakeholders to restore devolved government and create more sustainable structures. We ask how such experiences compare to the prevailing situation.

According to Phillips, the process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent implementation involved the British and Irish governments moving “pretty much in lockstep”. Considering the various factors at play, it was ultimately this “enormously strong co-operation…[which] carried the process to the devolution of justice and policing powers in 2010″. In contrast, recent rounds of negotiation have left the impression that both governments were “not on precisely the same page”.

Despite the small but significant differences remaining between the DUP and Sinn Féin on provision for the Irish language, Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrived in Belfast in February, hoping to close the deal. Far from strengthening the image of both governments’ commitment to make Northern Ireland work, the leaders were placed in an embarrassing position when the deal failed to materialise.

Relations have undoubtedly been affected by the exogenous shock of Brexit. Phillips adds that the rhetoric exchanged between the Dublin and London governments is “of a kind [he] cannot remember” in recent times, perhaps not since the 1980s. If Phillips is right to emphasise the crucial role of the British and Irish governments in forging agreements in Northern Ireland – and many commentators would agree – then another breakthrough soon looks improbable.

Brexit was the surprise 18th birthday present for our generation, the Good Friday Agreement generation. At the time of the referendum, Northern Ireland seemed to be heading in the right direction. Assembly elections in May 2016 had returned the DUP and Sinn Fein as the largest parties. In a surprise move, the three smaller parties decided to enter into Official Opposition rather than share power in the Executive. It was hoped that this Opposition could hold the Executive to account and offer a real alternative for the voters. The inclusivity of the peace process culminating in the Good Friday Agreement, had been exchanged for the exclusivity of a political process. The DUP and Sinn Fein responded by promising to “get on with the work”, a supposed symbol of how far the two parties had travelled together in the past ten years. A draft programme for Government was agreed and released for consultation.

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By January 2017, however, the Executive had collapsed over the botched Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI). There were naturally a range of factors which made the breakdown of government more likely but one can certainly put forward the case that Brexit made politics more complicated. When asked about his thoughts on Brexit and the efforts to restore devolved government, Phillips states that it is hard to offer certain judgements from outside the current discussions.

Nevertheless, he surmises that it will be enormously dif cult to restore the Executive before the Brexit framework has been decided. The current uncertainty and disagreement over the future status of the Irish border makes progress unlikely.

Aside from its implications for the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, several politicians from across the British Isles have raised concerns about civil disorder in the event of a hard border post-Brexit. At a recent event in London, former Prime Minister John Major suggested that a hard border would “divide communities that are now united” and provide “a focus for protests from fringe groups – either unionists or nationalists”.

Admittedly several leading Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg among them, have dismissed such speculation outright and are committed to maintaining a frictionless border, whatever the outcome of the EU negotiations. It is nevertheless a scenario that should be considered seriously.

One of the most innovative provisions of the Good Friday Agreement – and a critical issue underpinning ‘the Troubles’ needing resolution in the agreement – was the question of citizenship. The Agreement guaranteed individuals in Northern Ireland the right to both Irish and British citizenship. Nationalists could imagine themselves as part of the wider community on the island of Ireland, while Unionists continued to feel secure in their membership of the United Kingdom. The success of this arrangement – certainly in the eyes of the Nationalist community – depended on the existence of a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. While no one yet has been able to describe the shape of a hard border, many fear that the existence of any physical infrastructure will divide communities and weaken the Agreement.

For Nationalists in Northern Ireland, citizenship means much more than a passport – it means the right to freely and easily commute, travel and trade across the island. It must be stated that violent republicans represent a tiny proportion of the Nationalist community and young people are overwhelmingly committed to achieving their political ambitions through democratic means.

But even a cursory glance at Irish history will reveal that violent political organisations have been fuelled by the use of symbols and propaganda – the hard border may provide ammunition to such groups, in more ways than one.

In the run up to the centenary of the Northern Ireland state in 2021, the constitutional position of the six counties has never been more precarious. Republicans feel emboldened by the prospect of an Irish unity vote in the wake of Brexit. While unionists feel confident that they can carry the day in any future border poll, they are worried that the British government will undermine the strength of the Union by negotiating regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU or moving the border with bloc into the Irish Sea. Ultimately for devolved government in Northern Ireland, as well as most other matters in British and Irish politics today, it “all comes back to Europe”, Phillips says.

When working in the NIO, Phillips helped the British government maintain a position of benign neutrality as a guarantor of the Agreement. We ask him how the parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster, given the Tory-DUP confidence and supply arrangement, impacts on the British Government’s ability to continue acting in this manner. He believes that while the British Government “could well be behaving with absolute impartiality”, it is exceedingly difficult for them to “escape the perception that they may not be.”

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Phillips makes the interesting point that sometime soon we could see Sinn Fein entering into a confidence and supply arrangement of some kind with one of the biggest parties in the Irish Republic. Unionists would then question the neutrality of the Irish government with equal temerity.

When asked about the most successful aspect of the Agreement, Phillips lauds it as overall a “model of ambiguity”. It enabled entrenched opponents to compromise. On the principle of consent for the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the timing of a border poll and questions of identity, the Good Friday Agreement provided a framework which could embrace almost all points of view. By contrast recent rounds of talks demonstrated the limits of ambiguity.

Since the collapse of devolved government in January 2017, the issue of Irish language provision has come to the top of the political agenda and is currently a stumbling block in finding a solution. Sinn Féin demand a stand-alone Irish Language Act, modelled on similar cultural legislation in Scotland and Wales, while the DUP has been staunchly opposed.

It would be unfair to say that most in the DUP are anti-Irish language, the majority feel that it has become politicised as a result of Sinn Féin’s influence and believe that other minority languages deserve equal protection. Earlier this year, a solution seemed possible when both parties – although this is disputed by sources within the DUP – provisionally agreed to an all-encompassing Culture Act.

This is a prime example of constructive ambiguity at work, an agreement that both sides can claim as a victory. Despite this, the deal fell through at the last minute when the DUP realised it could not carry its base on the issue.

Could this constructive ambiguity have worked in previous years? Since the Agreement, Northern Ireland has lost some of its most influential and effective leaders. The principle architects of the Agreement from the Northern Ireland side, John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP, were sidelined by the electorate within ten years.

In their place emerged the DUP and Sinn Féin. We ask Phillips about his experiences of working with former DUP leader Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness. Both were very effective in carrying their bases with them, Phillips comments, demonstrating great ability to sell compromise and ambiguity as a win for their side.

The current generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland had yet to demonstrate that capability.

Phillips points out that the real tragedy of the last 20 years is the fact that politics has become more ‘tribal’, not less. Two decades on and there are still more than one hundred peace walls separating communities across Northern Ireland. When it comes to education, 80% of Catholic and Protestant children attend different denominational schools. Almost all social housing is segregated. These examples testify to the failure to create a shared and integrated society and demonstrate that the tribal nature of our political leaders ultimately trickles down to tribalism in our communities.

After the process of devolution was completed in 2010, it could be said that the stabilisers were taken off the Northern Ireland political bicycle too soon.

Everyone felt that it was time to let Northern Ireland forge its own way.

We can find many people to blame for the collapse of the Assembly. The British and Irish Governments backed away too soon, perhaps. Equally, parties and politicians in Northern Ireland could be said to have lost their focus, lost their balance and not advanced fast or hard enough towards lasting settlement.

We can blame a whole variety of people, factors or circumstances. On the 22nd May 1998, the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland took the giant step, and voted three-to-one for the fresh start promised in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement Generation – the young people of Northern Ireland today – have a responsibility over the coming years and months, two decades after that Agreement was endorsed by their parents and grandparents, to rediscover the hope; to drive forward with ambition and optimism; in spite of and because of our current stalemate.