Diarmaid Ferriter: North still not the shared society Belfast Agreement promised

Institutionalising two tribes and structuring power sharing accordingly is seen by many as flaw of accord

State documents released in London, Belfast and Dublin in recent years offer revealing insights into the mentalities and methods that went in to the making of the Belfast Agreement 25 years ago this week. The archives are littered with initiative, creativity, setbacks, tantrums, wordplay, ambiguity, denial and the painstaking efforts of politicians, diplomats and civil servants as they drafted and redrafted. A friend of talks chairman George Mitchell later recorded how he had trained himself “not to luxuriate in drama” in a process drowning in it.

The dialogue and risks ultimately bore fruit, but that makes it all the more dispiriting that the shared society supposed to develop from splitting power and, in Seamus Heaney’s words, the sense of “Ulsterness as a shared attribute”, remains sadly inadequate or elusive.

The broad acceptance that differences in Northern Ireland needed to be resolved peacefully was hard won, and the relief should not be forgotten given a death toll of over 3,600 during the Troubles. Even in 1998, 58 people were killed. For all the “insider accounts” books or biographies and memoirs from the participants, the most important book published since the agreement remains David McKittrick’s Lost Lives in 1999, systemically detailing the 3,636 Troubles-related deaths from 1969-1999, 56 per cent of them civilians.

There is greater ease now, but a quarter of a century was never going to relieve the weight of trauma engendered by the scale of the Troubles. The title of Feargal Cochrane’s 2013 book was Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. Devolution, he argued, had brought stability but no reconciliation: “in the end we are on our own, joined at the hip to the very people we most mistrust”. David Park’s 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner captures Belfast’s “favourite passion of self-consoling mythology”; the commissioner Henry Stanley presides over “some truth but little reconciliation”. Anna Burn’s 2018 novel Milkman excavates the harrowing dark days, the codes and doublespeak, but also, when change might be possible, the overwhelming urge to drift back “to the view that was always familiar, dependable, inevitable”.


True, many obstacles were overcome; decommissioning, a new police service, devolution of justice powers, the noble efforts of community and especially women’s groups and Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness managing an unlikely double act. But unionists, despite securing the guarantee of the union until NI’s voters decided otherwise and the territorial claim to the North removed from the Irish Constitution, were unable to translate this into a confident politics. As one Irish official observed, such was their innate pessimism that “every concession seems a loss that can never be retrieved”, the negativity matched by internal divisions and lack of preparation. Musician and writer Lias Saoudi, who moved to Cookstown in 1998 when he was 12, observed loyalists “condemned to a crumbling narrative that could no longer make sense of itself”.

Republicans managed the peace process more effectively, clever in their “creative ambiguity” as they revised and adapted amid tactical interruptions and threats, effectively centralising power and discipline, sometimes chillingly, and able to communicate a confidence that overrode the compromises they made. But the increasing assertions about the inevitability of Irish unity belie a vagueness about means, methods and persuasion.

Institutionalising two tribes and structuring power sharing accordingly is now seen by many as a weakness of the agreement; an acceptance that NI is a sectarian place. In Colin Graham’s words, it is a way of “managing the hatred through a set of methods and structures”. The hope was that such contrivance would ultimately lead to what David Trimble told Tony Blair in 1997 he wanted; a NI where “politicians could get on with the issues politicians normally concerned themselves with”. Graham heard a protester during flag protests declaring of the union jack, “That flag is my life.” This was “preposterous… but in a world in which identity has been the ultimate currency of value in the political system, it makes complete sense… Identity is everything that he is. The Belfast Agreement tells him so.”

Before her murder in 2019, young journalist Lyra McKee was researching the scale of suicide in Northern Ireland. From 1998-2014, 3,709 died by suicide, nearly one-fifth of them under the age of 25. A 2017 study found 39 per cent of people in NI had experienced a traumatic event related to the conflict. The most deprived and violent areas during the Troubles became the places with the highest suicide rates. As McKee wrote, many “were consumed by the memories and loaded their children with them, like bags on a mule… We, the elders believed, would never see or know war the way they had. But we did. We just saw it through their eyes… We did get the peace, or something close to it. All those who’d caused carnage in the decades before got the money… My generation got f***ed over… I don’t want a united Ireland or a stronger union. I just want a better life.”