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Writers on the Belfast Agreement: Michael Longley, Jan Carson, Michelle Gallen, Neil Hegarty and more reflect on 25 years of change

Leading authors reflect on the changes wrought by the 1998 agreement and what the future might hold

Michael Longley

I can say little more than what I tried to say in some poems I wrote during those terrible years and after. In summer 1994, amid rumours of an IRA ceasefire, I was reading the episode in the Iliad where Priam, the old king of Troy, bravely visits the mighty Greek general Achilles. He begs for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed in combat. I compressed the drama into a sonnet called “Ceasefire”. Priam’s words in the closing couplet are: “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son.”

I was later approached by an acquaintance. “I liked your Achilles poem,” he said, “but I’m not ready for it. My son was the victim of a vicious punishment beating. He may never recover.” This made me question the redemptive symmetries of “Ceasefire”. So I wrote “All of these People”, a sort of lopsided corollary. It begins: ‘Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war/ Is not so much peace as civilisation?’ On Easter Sunday 1998, my wife and I were in the Burren when we heard the wondrous news of the Belfast Agreement. In “At Poll Salach”, I use flower imagery to express our initial anxiety and then our nervous rejoicing: “While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills/ You showed me, like a concentration of violets/ Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky,/ A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.” Doing what must be done, peacemaking, civilisation-building, imagining a collective future – all that takes a long time. But I believe that civil society in the North is some way ahead of the politics.

Michael Longley’s latest poetry collection is The Slain Birds

Jan Carson

If nothing else, the last few years have taught us it’s almost impossible to predict the future. However, when I think about where the North will be in 25 years’ time, significant change of some sort seems likely. I’m a big fan of the space which was created under the Good Friday agreement. It has allowed many of us to coexist – sometimes awkwardly, though for the most part peacefully – while maintaining a complex plurality of identities. I love the diversity and variety which has begun to flourish in the North. I’d like to see more of it and hope the immediate future will include significant advances in integrating the school system and further opportunities to embrace diversity on every level.


To paraphrase the poet Louis MacNeice, we’re at our best when we’re being various. As we face huge questions about the future of this island, it’s essential that all these various experiences are taken into consideration. Informed decisions about Ireland’s future cannot be made without a comprehensive understanding of the hope, fears and lived experiences of everyone who calls this place home. I believe our artists have a significant role to play in ensuring all these stories are heard and honoured.

Jan Carson’s latest novel is The Raptures

Neil Hegarty

The Good Friday agreement was only ever one more phase for Northern Ireland, one more step on the road. It was only ever one element in a larger flow of time and circumstance that can never be controlled. Brexit very effectively underlined this point: the architecture of the Good Friday agreement relied on a stable geopolitical structure, in which both the United Kingdom and Ireland were elements attached to a larger European whole. With the advent of Brexit, all future bets were off: and in the years since, we have all witnessed the resulting instability, which of course will continue: the ongoing degradation of the union, the changing face of Irish society, and the facts and demands of economics guarantee it.

My wish for Northern Ireland is for a sustained conversation in which the opportunities of unification can be fully visualised, and in which the best of both parts of Ireland can be imagined as melded into one. Such conversations are of course already taking place, but they require political energy and imagination to propel them forward. Let the approaching phase of state-building learn from past structural mistakes on both sides of the border, and build on foundations of experience and good faith.

Neil Hegarty co-edited Impermanence, a collection of essays on the North, with Nora Hickey M’Sichili

Claire Mitchell

How do you celebrate a peace agreement on life support?

I am the tail end of Generation X. A childhood lived in conflict. An adulthood lived in the hope and promise of the Good Friday agreement.

But to live in the promise of the Agreement, 25 years on, is to live with cognitive dissonance. It is to simultaneously believe that “We Deserve Better”, while people do not vote for it. It is to remember the lives saved due to reduced paramilitary violence, but to forget the lives lost to hopelessness and system collapse. It is to celebrate each return of the devolved institutions, stoically awaiting their next implosion. It is to hold all your democratic desires in a little bottle labelled “later”.

These reflections may cause despair. But there is liberation to be found in their confession. For many years now, the people of Northern Ireland have been building peace ourselves. We have placed hope in each other. The Agreement gave us the opportunity to begin this process. But we are now spilling out of the container it gave us. We should not be afraid of radical reform or new constitutional conversations. People are ready to creatively imagine more nourishing futures.

Claire Mitchell is author of The Ghost Limb: Alternative Protestants and the Spirit of 1798

Brian McGilloway

There’s no doubt that we are in a much better place than we were 25 years ago and I’m so grateful that my children have been spared the generational trauma that we suffered. However, the polarisation of politics internationally in the past decade has affected the North, too, while the impact of Brexit has compounded that division. A failure of political leadership, short-term thinking, myopic policies and party-politicking mean that while we have progressed far beyond where we were, we are not anywhere near as far as we should have been by now.

Regarding the future, it’s clear that the current systems can’t continue. The idea that a single party can paralyse Stormont for years is absurd. In the short term, the legislation around governance needs to be changed to allow other parties who are willing to govern to do so, addressing immediate issues in health, education and the economy. In the longer term, the traffic seems headed only in one way. To avoid a repeat of the tragedies of the past, conversations should be happening now about how to ensure that the future will be one that everyone will welcome – or at least that no one will fear.

Brian McGilloway’s latest novel is The Empty Room

Angeline King

New yellow political signage on Larne Main Street marks a generational shift. I was born in 1975 and raised on a street where Catholic and Protestant children played together. These were the children of policemen and prison officers. It was a contented childhood setting in many ways, but fear silently pervaded twilight dreams. When the Good Friday agreement was signed, I was on a year abroad in France and about to set off on a school trip to Ireland. The French teachers thought I was going home, but the Cork accent and Sean-nós singing in the bar in Galway were new to me too.

I moved back to Belfast, and on my first day in a new flat, news came through from Omagh. Peace is an interminable process and the baton has passed on to my generation. I’m happy with the new yellow Alliance Party sign on the constituency office, and I believe in Stormont, but Protestant women in their 40s are curious. There’s the odd “what if” conversation. Would they change the flag? What’s the healthcare like? Tell me about that housing crisis. Conversations that didn’t happen when our parents were checking under their cars for bombs.

Angeline King is Ulster University Writer in Residence and a Ulster-Scots author

Michelle Gallen

The Good Friday agreement was almost 18 years old when my French husband and I decided to move so our London-born kids could grow up closer to family. We ruled France out due to its excellent but inflexible education system in which we’d seen family members either excel or get lost. I suggested returning to the North, where we’d first met. We had a big network of family and friends, and had seen Belfast and Derry flourish over the years, and could – for the price of a deposit on a house in Dublin – buy a house outright.

But despite our happy memories, my husband refused point blank to move back. We’d left our religious beliefs behind and didn’t want our kids to attend a school with a strong religious ethos. And despite a grassroots push for the creation of “integrated” schools – where children are educated in a non-denominational setting – “mixed” schools are in a minority. We eventually found a community through the Educate Together school our kids attend in Dublin, where they learn about a multitude of cultures and religions both in the classroom and from friends in the yard. I’d love to see a Good Friday agreement refresh, acknowledging the agreement’s many successes while tackling high-impact projects such as the integration of schools. The next generation – and the future of the North – deserve this.

Michelle Gallen’s latest novel, Factory Girls, is shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize

Darran Anderson

For those who remember what it was like before the Good Friday agreement, there’s still a sense of relief. Amnesia and the rewriting of history haven’t fully prevailed yet. In comparison to many politicians today, we can still look upon the architects of peace as formidable figures, some possessing great integrity (Hume, Mowlam etc). It was no small thing to bring the bloodbath largely to an end. Yet there’s no denying the years since have been fallow, and we are dangerously close to squandering the peace.

Rather than address the underlying sickness, the province has been placed in an induced coma in the hope that it will somehow heal itself. The communities are still divided. Poverty and deprivation are rife, however ignored. Behind the facade, not much has materially changed for many people there. There’s been no reckoning with the injustices of the past or the inequities of the present. The cold comfort of “it could be worse” is growing thin. Better ways have to be offered, or others will come in their absence with dark designs and bright promises, and whatever fragile equilibrium the Good Friday agreement achieved will not hold. It will require not only a radical transformation of Northern Ireland but a transformation of the two states jostling to get rid of it.

Darran Anderson’s latest book is Inventory. He has just been awarded the $175,000 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize

Eoin McNamee

In the poem With Mercy For the Greedy, Anne Sexton talks about wanting to reach out and touch the figure of Jesus on a gifted crucifix, its tender hips, its dark jawed face… but I can’t. Need is not quite belief. The Good Friday agreement belongs somewhere in the space between need and belief. In the years since its signing it has shed or ceased to operate many of its provisions, faltered, slowed, failed some, disillusioned many. We possess little of the belief of the first days of its signing and are left with only the need not to go back. It is important, however, that we acknowledge that if it is a husk of what it was intended to be, it remains a light-filled husk, the best of us set against the long dark that claimed so much.

Eoin McNamee is the author of 19 novels including Resurrection Man and the Blue Trilogy, and director of the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre

Wendy Erskine

It’s pointed out, in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, that no one arriving for the first time in Florence, Paris, London or New York is ever really a stranger. They’ve already visited these places in painting, literature and film. Whereas, if a city hasn’t been used by artists, then not even the inhabitants can live there imaginatively. Well, in terms of Belfast – and Northern Ireland generally – the inhabitants can surely have no such difficulty. They’ve seen their surroundings in visual art and novels, in film, in TV detective series, dramas, comedies. As a place, it’s artistically rich. And yet it’s a one where the terrorism threat level has just been raised from substantial to severe. An attack is considered highly likely.

In the recent census, roughly a third of people in Northern Ireland didn’t consider themselves to have an exclusively Irish or British identity. Rather, they identified themselves as Northern Irish, or else Northern Irish with coexisting other identities. And yet, at the same time, in Northern Ireland there’s segregated social housing, divisive education, different sports and teams, different tracksuit-bottoms, “peace” walls separating the communities on either side.

For the architects of the Good Friday agreement, the framework of two traditions and parity of esteem was central. My hope for the future is that any young person who lives in this beautiful, exciting, dysfunctional place derives their own sense of worth from something that resides beyond either of the two traditions.

Wendy Erskine’s latest short story collection is Dance Move

Louise Kennedy

I was living in Lebanon – which was just a few years into its own uneasy peace – when the Good Friday agreement was signed, and did not fully grasp the scale of what had been achieved. The relative peace has been something I never thought I would see, but it is important to remember that not everyone signed up to it. At times it is frustrating, but we should never forget how things were before, and realise that peace is a process made possible only by dialogue and respect.

Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses won Irish Novel of the Year

Paul McVeigh

All I ever dreamt of, from boyhood, was leaving Belfast, as soon as I possibly could. There were a number of factors that combined to make this ever-present but none more urgent than to escape the suffocating fear the Troubles caused.

There is no denying the positive impact of the Good Friday agreement. I, for one, would never have returned without the new Belfast it created. I was shocked, however, when over that first summer back, in my local area alone, a number of young people killed themselves, two men were killed by paramilitaries and there was a bomb scare on my street. Things are not always as the loudest voices would have you believe. If you want to hear what is really going on, or, at least, what is also going on, seek out the voiceless.

Recently, I watched the powerful documentary Lyra about the life of Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot dead in Derry in 2019. Lyra talked incisively about how the Good Friday agreement failed her generation. Lyra’s sister, Nichola, researched that statistic that Lyra’s was 160th conflict-related death since the Good Friday agreement. I think Lyra was right, and so perhaps is Nichola, when she said recently that the agreement should be “commemorated, not celebrated”.

Paul McVeigh is author of The Good Son and the play, Big Man