Thursday 18 July 2019

Good Friday Agreement 'has not failed, people have failed it'

Watching two elder statesmen of peace cry was a moment of great emotion

BENCHING: Trimble, Spring and Mallon were honoured
BENCHING: Trimble, Spring and Mallon were honoured
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

There's something about watching grown men cry or struggle to contain their emotions that hits your inner core.

When it is the architects and elder statesmen of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) who struggle to maintain their composure as they recall the dark days of the Troubles, it hits you even more.

There were audible gasps, including my own, last Thursday night when Seamus Mallon recalled how his life had been saved on several occasions by his Protestant friends and neighbours in the predominantly Unionist village of Markethill, Co Armagh, where the 81-year-old titan of the peace process still lives.

One thing about Markethill, Mallon told a small audience that included the Attorney General Seamus Woulfe and Belfast-born Supreme Court Judge Mr Justice Donal O'Donnell, is that there are no hiding places, no comfort zones, no places you can sneak into after dark.

"I was among friends," said Mallon, the former deputy leader of the SDLP and the first Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Fighting back a surge of emotion that appeared to catch him by surprise, Mallon continued: "Those friends were my brothers and neighbours. And I can tell you that on a number of occasions, I would not have been here now had it not been for my Protestant friends."

David Trimble, the former UUP leader, first First Minister of Northern Ireland and Nobel Peace Prize winner - who is an ardent Brexiteer - also struggled with his emotions at an event on mediation organised by the Bar of Ireland to mark the honorary benching, by the Kings Inns, of Mallon, Trimble and former Labour leader and Tanaiste Dick Spring.

The voice of the British peer, who said he still doesn't know who nominated him for his Nobel, broke when he recalled that Mallon had attended the funeral of the late UUP deputy leader Harold McCusker, whose death at an early age from cancer paved the way for Trimble to lead the UUP for 15 years and secure his place in the history books.

"People will remember you at that funeral," Trimble said to Mallon, noting that Mallon's attendance at McCusker's funeral in 1990 - which followed one of the deadliest years of the conflict - was hugely respected by the Unionist community.

The two men broke the emotive atmosphere when Trimble said to Mallon: "I think I better follow your example," a reference to speaking briefly at the podium.

"For the first time," quipped Mallon in reply, prompting warm laughter in the room.

But the political impasse in Northern Ireland is no laughing matter.

Despite the GFA, whose 20th anniversary falls next year, the two communities in Northern Ireland are more polarised than ever.

The middle ground, so vital to stability and cohesion, has been obliterated by Sinn Fein and the DUP, whose only unity is their hardline stances.

Those infamous peace walls? There are more now than at any time during the conflict. Twenty years after the GFA, more than nine out of 10 schoolchildren are educated in segregated schools.

In an area with high and persistent levels of social deprivation - Northern Ireland requires an annual £10bn subvention from London as well as critical EU funding to support the communities most at risk - more than nine out of 10 recipients of social housing are segregated along religious/sectarian lines.

It is a most fragile peace.

And it's hard to disagree with Duncan Morrow, the University of Ulster politics lecturer and conflict resolution expert. Morrow recently told the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit that Northern Ireland could not, in its present guise, survive either a United Ireland or a Hard Brexit, the greatest existentialist crisis to hit the island of Ireland, arguably since partition.

Catholics and Protestants have lived cheek by jowl in Northern Ireland for more than 400 years and will continue to do so for the next 400 years, despite the chasms between 'them' and 'us'.

Mallon, taking inspiration from the Belfast poet, John Hewitt, says we have gained something from that inevitable proximity.

"It is a horror of violence," he told the Bar of Ireland, before taking a sideswipe at Sinn Fein's use of an Irish language act to stall talks in the North.

"It is my conviction that the hiatus, the failure, is more than just about the Irish language or anything else," said Mallon. "And by the way, the Irish language doesn't belong to Sinn Fein or to any political party. It belongs to the Irish people. Why should we allow them [Sinn Fein] to act like a cudgel to beat others around the head with?"

Mallon, who despite his age and frailty, is still an outstanding and commanding orator, is angry at those who say the Good Friday Agreement has failed. "It has not failed," he said, urging that victory, the kind that leads to an impasse unless either side can claim one does not - along with trophy hunting and staged handshakes in front of international media - belong in Northern Ireland anymore.

"It [the GFA] has brought peace of a kind. And anything that brings peace of a kind is successful," said Mallon, who appealed for help to deal with what he describes as the complexities of a simple problem. "People have failed it. And they are continuing to fail it."

As it slowly dawns on the British Government that the principle of consent to British sovereignty [Northern Ireland voted to remain] and an open border lie at the heart of the GFA, we desperately need to return to that landmark document whose preamble - always worth re-reading - reminds us how interlocking and interdependent the lives and livelihoods of all on this island are. Brexit poses new threats to the GFA including a border - hard or soft - that will play into the idle hands of extremists.

The prospect of a return to violence, even of a minor kind, is a price we simply cannot afford to pay.

Sunday Independent

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