Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness emerged dissatisfied from Downing Street following his most recent visit. He described the meeting he and Peter Robinson had with British prime minister David Cameron as the least convincing he had experienced with a British prime minister in 20 years.
The encounter and the reaction to it tell us much about the politics of the peace process on the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.
It is remarkable that McGuinness has been meeting British prime ministers for 20 years but the content and context of such meetings have shifted significantly. The two Northern Ministers were there to discuss a "bread and butter issue" in seeking a lowering of the corporation tax in Northern Ireland.
A further indication of changed times is that Cameron was dismissive and has other things on his mind. Over Easter, McGuinness also accused the Irish Government of becoming “complacent” about the peace process, a reminder that it also is too preoccupied elsewhere to prioritise Northern Ireland.
During the long path to a relative peace in Northern Ireland there was much desire for and talk of “the normalisation” of politics and society, and many wished for the days when economics rather than violence would dominate discussion.
On their travels, Robinson and McGuinness sing from the same economic hymn sheet, as has been evident from their various trade and investment missions. But there is also much on which they disagree which has militated against a deeper reconciliation.
Though the DUP and Sinn Féin have found a way to work together, there is still much division and sectarian hatred in Northern Ireland, as was underlined by the viciousness of the recent flag protests, while dissident republicans show no sign of disappearing and are a serious threat to peace.
Historically, given the cyclical nature of violence there was no reason to expect it would disappear completely due to the Belfast Agreement and it did not.
In 2009, George Quigley of the Institute of British-Irish Studies suggested that some of the stridency had gone out of the tone of debate in Northern Ireland and that "there is mutual civility there never was before".
But recent events have underlined how fragile that can be, and there is little sign of a return to the chuckling of powersharing brothers, but rather, in its place, a frosty tolerance that is easily unhinged.
Many of the physical barriers dividing communities remain, as do the segregated housing estates and the education divide. To assume that 15 years of the agreement would eradicate such gulfs would be naive, but it is surely valid to see the lack of robust engagement with these contentious areas as deliberate.
There was no shortage of declarations of change, history making, new eras and transformations in April and May 1998 as the Belfast Agreement inched over the line and the electorate, 94 per cent in the Republic and 71 per cent in the North, endorsed the agreement. Garret FitzGerald recorded at the time of the count that “we had perhaps just seen the long, drawn-out tragedy of Northern Ireland move, at a single stroke, out of current affairs and into history”.
Historian Roy Foster wrote optimistically of new definitions of Irishness and quoted Irish writer Hubert Butler who, as a southern-based Protestant writer in earlier decades, had suggested, “it is as neighbours, full of eradicable prejudices, that we must love each other, not as fortuitously separated brethren”.
Where do such sentiments and assertions lie 15 years on? An enormous amount has happened in the North since the agreement. Some of the “eradicable prejudices” referred to were evidenced by the sheer horror of the Omagh bomb that killed 29 people in 1998, but there has been a dramatic decline in the number of killings after the 30 years of the Troubles during which nearly 3,700 lost their lives. That alone vindicates the choice of politics over violence.
The years after the agreement also witnessed the eclipse of the SDLP and UUP and the end of the era of Hume and Trimble (who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts). In 1997 the UUP had 10 MPs; by 2005 it had just one.
The SDLP went from being the largest party in terms of votes in Northern Ireland to the fourth-largest party. Sinn Féin secured a strong presence in the Dáil as well as in the North and Ian Paisley and his successor were converted to powersharing with a resurgent DUP.
Along the way, there were postponed Assembly elections and numerous claims that the Belfast Agreement was "dead", the firm IRA statement of July 2005 ("All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means"), followed by verifiable arms decommissioning, and numerous twists and turns before acceptance of a new police force and a powersharing government in 2007.
John Hume’s replacement as SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, had asked: “What hope is there that those who delivered the worst of Northern Ireland’s past will deliver the best of its future?”
The short-term answer came in the form of the “Chuckle Brothers” – Paisley as first minister and McGuinness as deputy first minister. Paisley was on the losing side in 1998 but was the long-term winner. A loyalist heckler had shouted “Go Home Dinosaur!” to him at Belfast City Hall after the count in 1998, and the heckler was hardly the only one to feel Paisley was yesterday’s man.
It seemed in 1998 that the Belfast Agreement had vindicated the moderates, but in the long run the so-called extremes were the winners. There was an element of history repeating itself in this regard, as a similar transformation happened in the South in the period 1922-32 when the anti-Treaty republicans lost the vote over the Treaty and were crushed in the Civil War only to win power less than 10 years later.
In the period after the agreement, Sinn Féin and the IRA profited from internal discipline and ruthless centralisation, in contrast to the loyalist paramilitaries who imploded, the irony being that it was the republicans’ opponents who got more out of the Belfast Agreement by securing the union, the principle of consent and the eradication of the Republic’s territorial claim.
The republicans got a share of power, cross-Border bodies, the disbandment of the RUC and acceptance that they had fought a war and prisoners could be released.
The path towards power sharing was long and winding precisely because both sides needed to make it so; unionists because of divisions in their ranks, and republicans because, in the words of historian and Trimble adviser Paul Bew, “how could a revolutionary movement settle for such a prosaic, even dull outcome, which fell so drastically short of its stated objectives? Perhaps this helps to explain the IRA’s consistent compensating adventurism in this period” (including the spy ring at Stormont, and the Northern Bank robbery).
It is clear that the British interest in Northern Ireland is not as deep as unionists would like and this was also the case during the War of Independence era. Historically, there have always been pragmatic reasons for British politicians wanting to get the Irish question off the table at Downing Street, reasons that could take precedence over ideological commitment. During the War of Independence, for example, whatever about what was said in public, British policy was about engineering a deal with Irish republicans. While this aim was complicated at various stages by surges in violence from 1920-21, as it was in the 1990s, it remained the central goal.
In relation to the contemporary Irish republican project, while Gerry Adams is firmly ensconced in the Dáil, Sinn Féin's bold move to have McGuinness elected president did not go as well as they wished (he received 13.7 per cent of first-preference votes) and revealed that the legacy of the Troubles is still raw and partitionist mindsets still entrenched and republicans will be worried about lack of interest in Irish unity.
Ultimately, the most obvious thaw has been in Anglo-Irish relations. This was encapsulated in Bertie Ahern’s words at the Palace of Westminster in 2007 when he addressed a joint session of parliament: “We are now in an era of agreement – of new politics and new realities . . . reconciliation has brought us closer”.
Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011 was an indication of confidence on the British and Irish sides that both were ready for a gesture of this significance and the British government took this development very seriously; the presence of Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague was testament to that. At the outset of her speech in Dublin Castle during that visit, the president, Mary McAleese, declared: “This visit is a culmination of the success of the peace process.”
That was certainly underlined by the warmth of Anglo-Irish relations, but those sharing power in Northern Ireland are less effusive about what holds them together and their capacity to overcome what still divides them.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD