If Good Friday Agreement can’t deliver stable government, voters must be told

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Next Tuesday, Queen’s University will host an event with President Clinton, George Mitchell, Jonathan Powell, Bertie Ahern, Lord Trimble, Gerry Adams, Seamus Mallon, Peter Robinson, Lord Alderice, Monica McWilliams and other ‘key influencers’ on the Good Friday Agreement (maybe even Tony Blair).

At the time they were booked there would have been an expectation — or maybe nothing more than hope — that the assembly would be functioning.

In other words, they were coming to Belfast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an agreement which was intended to change the face of politics in Northern Ireland and move us, collectively, into a new era of co-operation, trust and genuine power-sharing.

Given present circumstances, the celebration has morphed into something that is a mixture of a political séance, wake, post-mortem and resurrection in Miss Havisham’s mansion:

“I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.”

So, instead of explaining how and why the ‘Good Friday miracle’ had been pulled out of the hat at the last moment on a snowy day 20 years ago, they will, I hope, set out a potential plan for rescuing us from what is a dreadful, maybe very dangerous mess.

Speaking at the final plenary session of the talks after the agreement had been adopted, David Trimble said:

“We see this agreement as addressing the wounds which have damaged our society, ensuring that our diverse traditions attract respect and, above all, laying the foundations for a healthy, vibrant democracy to replace the stagnation, frustration and powerlessness of the last three decades.

“Whether it succeeds depends on our efforts in succeeding days. The opportunity is there. I believe the people of Northern Ireland will make their choice and leave behind those still mired in violence and hate ... and let us offer a vision of peace and prosperity to our children.”

George Mitchell: “I have a new dream; to return to Northern Ireland in a few years and sit in the visitors’ gallery in the Northern Assembly.

“There we will watch and listen as the members debate the ordinary issues of life in a democratic society. There will be no talk of war, for the war will have long been over. There will be no talk of peace, for peace will be taken for granted.

“On that day, the day on which peace is taken for granted in Northern Ireland, I will be fulfilled and the people of good will everywhere will rejoice.”

I wonder if Mitchell now asks himself if his dream will become reality, or if he’ll feel that sense of fulfilment?

I wonder if Trimble now ponders the irony that it is a former Ulster Unionist Party officer who jointly holds the fate of the agreement in her hands?

I wonder if all the other key players who will be contributing to debates and panels next Tuesday believes — even if they would never say it in public — that the ‘miracle’ has been shredded beyond practical use?

For all of their determination to praise the agreement on April 10, many others across Northern Ireland would prefer them to bury it.

I’ve said before that the agreement would always have to be tested, possibly to the point of destruction.

What we needed to discover, once the excitement of the agreement and referendum had settled, was whether unionists and republicans could park the constitutional question and reach consensus on Mitchell’s ‘ordinary issues of life in a democratic society’.

Within a short time it was clear that it wouldn’t be the UUP and SDLP taking the lead. And by May 2007, after St Andrews and the DUP/Sinn Fein deal, it also became clear that the toxic disagreement over the constitutional question would continue to eclipse and predominate every other issue.

Is that, as some in the so-called middle argue (I say ‘so-called’ because I’ve never believed that the middle ground in Northern Ireland is, or should be, stuck somewhere between the DUP and Sinn Fein, constantly overshadowed by their relentless mutual hostility to each other) the fault of the DUP/SF? No. Both those parties have grown— from 35% in 1998 to 66% now — because they’re reflecting the wishes of growing numbers on both sides.

And no, too, because the so-called middle has singularly and serially failed to provide an attractive electoral alternative: which is why it remains so low in the polls.

In a recent dialogue, when I expressed my concerns about the ‘constructive ambiguity’ which underpinned the agreement from day one, I was told, “But we would never have got the agreement off the ground had it not been for that ambiguity.”

Yet the trouble with that ambiguity is that, too often and for too many, it turned out to be destructive clarity, interpreted by many as plain, old-fashioned lies.

Conor Cruise O’Brien once asked: “If deceit is acceptable to win a war, why should it not be equally acceptable, say, to preserve a peace?”

Hmm. When all you have is conflict stalemate and continuing disagreement over the constitutional identity and geographical shape of the state, then huge damage will continue to be done by lies, deceit and ambiguity.

People deserve truth. If that truth is as brutal as, ‘The Good Friday Agreement cannot deliver stable government and genuine reconciliation,’ then we must not be afraid to say it.