The Good Friday Agreement- 20 Years On

20 years ago today, the people of Northern Ireland voted on the Good Friday Agreement in a referendum. A few weeks ago, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we asked three local MLA'S from across the political spectrum, to reflect on the impact of the agreement. Today we share those reflections.

Robbie Butler, UUP:

On the 16th April 1972 in the Lagan Valley hospital Robert Mark Butler inhaled his first breath of air and opened his eyes into a new world. What should for every new born be the beginning of a lifetime of opportunity and possibilities was, unknown to me, only the beginning of the navigation of life in a country that was tearing itself apart. 1972 although my birth year also bears the burden of being the year of greatest loss for many families during the so called “Troubles”. 149 security force, 78 para-military and 249 civilian deaths directly due to the conflict are the role of shame that reflects the level of hatred and fear that bound all people of this place I call home in that year alone. 

Like many, being born at such a time and with family living on an interface area, fashioned many a fertile mind with the stories, version and propaganda that all of us have been subject to growing up on this island. Fortunately for me, my parents although affected directly in many ways by the events of the day ensured that my siblings and I grew up confident in our identity but knowing that it was vital that we respected those who held a different identity. I’m also eternally grateful that my faith and relationship with God had ensured that the seed of Hope that had always been in my heart for peace and reconciliation was birthed in the guise of the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998. 

Like many I had been left cold and detached by the politics of my youth. Bludgeoning and brutality was not only the vice of physical conflict but in fact fed by many senior politicians of all hues. Where was the Hope, where was the vision where were the heroes that would put an end to the pain? Behind the scenes, for various reasons and unknown to many of us, certain brave politicians and unnamed individuals had been building structures and agreements that would provide the basis for power sharing and a peace. I can say hand on heart that when David Trimble and John Hume heralded the agreement, I along with many others for the first time in our lives began to imagine this place as it should have been all along. There can be no doubt in retrospect that the true cost to many of those individuals couldn’t have been imagined. 

Fast forward to 2018 and it would be easy to become disillusioned with the shenanigans of some senior politicians, who are stretching the very fabric of the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the tenants of power sharing and the GFA to its very limit. We have come too far, and experienced too many better days to allow the spirit and construct of what was achieved be torn apart by that all too familiar enemy that is hatred, intolerance and fear. Northern Ireland needs Leadership that puts Hope above all else.

Nichola Mallon, SDLP: 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. What should have been a significant week for Northern Ireland politics has, with the polarisation of politics, the widening vacuum of powerlessness and the out workings of pain felt by people on the ground, instead has invoked a feeling of nostalgia for what was, compounded by a feeling of disappointment about the absence of a future that should have been.

The SDLP has consistently elevated the needs of people above party political gains. In a time where beating the drum seems the easiest of options, we continue to stand in the gap for those who have lost their voice following the John Hume way.

We remain inspired by the parabolic like legacy of John Hume, who in 1998 broke the 800-year cycle of violence when he reached out his hand to Sinn Fein; who risked his own popularity as the political leader of the largest nationalist party, to welcome in those who had caused so much pain, not for his own gain, but for the future of Ireland.

Hume more than anyone else brought to an end the suffering inflicted on all sides by both state and paramilitary actors through selflessness, compassion and an ability to see beyond the present. Not mandate, but morality drove his political efforts to bring about peace, equality and prosperity to the North. That makes it all the more unfair and painful to see recent attempts to airbrush him and the SDLP from the history he was so  instrumental in shaping.

In 1998 we overcame the huge political challenges of prisoners and policing; issues people thought were insurmountable. Surely we can overcome the political challenges of today.

Just as rights, fairness and equality were on John’s mind twenty years ago, for me, nothing has, nor should it change. Each day I am motivated by the people who bring hardship and injustice to my office door.

There have been many times in the last 14 months when I have despaired at the absence of our long and hard fought for democratic institutions. But I lift myself out of that depsair by choosing hope. Now more than ever the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is needed and my party colleagues and I will continue to display and act upon the political values of 1998 and the promises of a better future for a generation to come. Because that is the John Hume way.

John didn’t see the Good Friday Agreement as the end game; he saw it as the foundation from which a new society would evolve, one where we would all work together for our common interests. Peace is built on historic Agreements but it is cemented and sustained by everyday gestures. So on this, the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, my pledge is that on every level, from the institutional right down to every single person who walks through an SDLP door to ask for help, we will work to honour Hume’s vision, we will work to deliver that future, we will do politics the John Hume way. 

Paul Givan, DUP: 

In 1998 I was sixteen years old and couldn’t vote in the referendum but it was this historic occasion that acted as the catalyst for my involvement in politics.  The Belfast Agreement energised the community and its impact has shaped our politics and society.  For my part I was energised to campaign against the Agreement and twenty years later I believe the position taken by the DUP has been vindicated and it was indeed ‘right to say no’. 

The price paid to secure support from republicans, at a time when the security forces had brought the IRA to their knees, was too high.  The mass release of prisoners that inflicted such misery was a step too far for many people in the Unionist community.  Entry into Government for Republicans without decommissioning of the IRA’s military arsenal and no requirement to support the Police Service and Courts created the instability that led to repeated collapses of Stormont, contributing to erosion in public confidence for those institutions.   Compounding this problem was the unaccountability of Ministerial decisions and North/South Bodies.  For many unionists the Belfast Agreement was a one way street and the result of the referendum bore this out.  Almost a third of the population voted against and this was almost exclusively from the Unionist community.  Any political agreement in Northern Ireland must command significant support from both communities. The Belfast Agreement failed to achieve this. The front loading of rewards for republicans, in the absence of their delivery on commitments, whilst the Royal Ulster Constabulary was emasculated, the British Military presence diminished and prisoners continued to be released acted as a corrosive agent among even those who had voted for the Belfast Agreement. 

In 2007 at St Andrews the DUP faced a huge challenge to create structures that would have the support of Unionism and we successfully addressed many of the weaknesses in the institutions with clear commitments for the rule of law, decommissioning, collective decision making on sensitive cross-cutting issues and accountable North/South Bodies.  Further challenges arose and these were addressed in more talks at Hillsborough and through Fresh Start. 

It is important to remember that over the past years there have been subsequent agreements that addresses some of the deficiencies in the Belfast Agreement. The political process has been exactly that a process of seeking resolutions that can have widespread support across our community.  Our society is in a much better place and whilst the political class faces another challenge through the absence of Stormont nobody can dispute that the future for this generation is brighter than it was for those that went before.

Undoubtedly many who voted for the Belfast Agreement did so sincerely for a better future with the hope that our two main traditions could live peaceable with each other.  Progress was made in subsequent agreements.  The desire and capacity of our society to reach out and recognise our differences is there. Politicians need to find that common ground that unites our people and put those first and foremost and continue to work on those issues that cause division. Twenty years from now I trust we will look back and those issues that still cause division will have moved forward and more progress made.  I am confident it will because of the spirit and desire of all our people to make our society work for everyone.