Fragile foundations of Belfast Agreement undermined

The 1998 agreement has been implemented neither in spirit nor in practice

On the 20th Anniversary of the Belfast Agreement a new generation of politicians outline the problems facing Northern Ireland. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

On a recent visit to New York, I fulfilled a long-held ambition to walk over the famous Brooklyn Bridge. The construction of this bridge was not without its difficulties, particularly from the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine.

This, however, was not the only difficulty the builders faced. While they were able to find a stable rock base to construct a tower on the Brooklyn side, at a depth of 44 feet, the Manhattan side proved more problematic.

Having gone to 78 feet they were still unable to find a solid rock foundation. The engineers calculated that the sand base at the Manhattan side was so compressed over many millennia that it was stable enough to erect the tower. This proved to be correct.

I reflected on the present political climate in the light of this story as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

It could be said of the 1998 agreement that it was built on sand, very unstable foundations, even though 71.1 per cent of people supported its construction. Unstable foundations can be stabilised given time and circumstances, as in the case of the tower on the Manhattan side.

Constructive ambiguity

The Belfast Agreement was built on the sand of “constructive ambiguity” and was not given the time to bed down and become the solid base on which to continue the construction. It was subject to storms from its very inception.

The experiment of the Belfast Agreement has failed – not because of the substance of the agreement itself, but because of the failure of those involved in its political outworking

There was the unwillingness of Sinn Féin/IRA to comply with the “exclusively peaceful means” which US senator George Mitchell enshrined as a principle. Mo Mowlam’s “housekeeping murders”, the unwillingness of the IRA to transparently decommission its weapons, the Northern Bank robbery of December 2004, the murder of Robert McCartney and others incidents have all eroded the confidence so clearly expressed in the summer of 1998.

The comments of the former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Kenneth Bloomfield, are worth noting: “Sinn Féin would claim that it never breached the wording of the agreement, but its dishonouring of its spirit left Trimble out to dry”.

Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and George Mitchell smiling on April 10th, 1998, after they signed a historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, ending a 30-year conflict. Photograph: Dan Chung
Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and George Mitchell smiling on April 10th, 1998, after they signed a historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, ending a 30-year conflict. File photograph: Dan Chung

That 71.1 per cent of people, including me, voted for a future rather than a past, but that future has been elusive, because it lacked a spirit of generosity. The former secretary of state, Owen Paterson, is right to affirm that it has “outlived its use”.

Had the agreement been given time, and had the sandy foundation been allowed to compact, it may well have become a firm foundation, but this was not to be

The experiment of the Belfast Agreement has failed – not because of the substance of the agreement itself, but because of the failure of those involved in its political outworking. What was envisaged was that, in the case of the IRA, they would become an old boys’ club, meeting as a purely social group in the Felons Club but not influencing future generations.

‘On the run’

Those who voted in favour of the agreement expected it to be kept in spirit as well as letter. I can well recall Martin McGuinness, on a visit to his old school, St Eugene’s, the day after his appointment as minister of education on November 30th, 1999.

He commented as the pupils prepared to go on a trip to Donegal that the last time he had been in that area he had been “on the run”. This comment, at such an early stage in the “peace process”, was not the kind of comment to instil confidence in the future.

Repairing the ‘peace line’ in Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images
Repairing the ‘peace line’ in Belfast. File photograph: Getty Images

While everyone has the right to remember their dead, those who supported the agreement did not think for one moment that Sinn Féin would “keep the pot boiling” with their constant glorification of the terrorist past. Had they realised that, then the agreement may not have had such overwhelming support.

Had the agreement been given time, and had the sandy foundation been allowed to compact, it may well have become a firm foundation, but this was not to be. The agreement may well be an international agreement lodged with the United Nations, but the fact remains that it has not been implemented in spirit or in practice.

This erosion of confidence has led to the destruction of the middle ground with both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP suffering virtual annihilation over subsequent elections.

Ironically we are left now with two opposing ideologies to implement the agreement. One ideology, republican, which never enthusiastically embraced the agreement, and the other the DUP, which opposed it.

Is it any wonder the fragile foundations have been undermined?

Rev Brian Kennaway is a Presbyterian minister, a former convenor of the education committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, a former member of the Parades Commission and former president of the Irish Association

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