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Protect the Good Friday Agreement? Why don’t we try implementing it first?

Commitments on rights are made, undelivered and reworded into an agreement

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned that progress made through the peace process on the island of Ireland is at risk of being compromised by the British government in its stance on the Northern Ireland protocol.

His words of caution accompany a growing chorus of voices pleading for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in the face of intransigence from the British government. But in truth the agreement has never been fully operational, with the vast majority of human rights protections unimplemented and the institutions barely functional. We don’t need to just protect the agreement; we need to implement it.

The Good Friday Agreement sought to make real the concept of a rights-based society in Northern Ireland. Human rights commitments to be protected in legislation included the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into law, a Bill of Rights, a Single Equality Act, an Irish Language Act and equality duties to be placed on public authorities.

The 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement picked up on this issue once again with the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly on a Bill of Rights

Of the aforementioned commitments, the ECHR is the only one to be properly implemented, while the remaining human rights protections continue to be poorly affected or ignored entirely.

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A recent survey from Queen’s University indicates significant cross-community support for an enforceable Bill of Rights, with 78 per cent of participants backing such a proposal. Yet attempts to create a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland have been dogged by delays, as well as efforts to minimise the scope and enforcement.

In 2008 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission discharged its duties under the Good Friday Agreement to advise the government on a Bill of Rights. The government did not deliver, and instead added a prerequisite necessitating “consensus” on the part of both nationalist and unionist parties concerning any rights considered for inclusion in such a Bill, establishing a veto on rights.

Expert panel

The 2020 New Decade New Approach agreement picked up on this issue once again with the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Assembly on a Bill of Rights. As part of this process an expert panel of external consultants was to be appointed to advise the committee.

Further to a Bill of Rights, the Good Friday Agreement included a number of provisions aimed at tackling sectarianism and segregation, including integrated education, the “right to freely choose one’s place of residence” and a “culture of tolerance at every level of society.”

Despite these commitments housing inequality and segregation persists, with efforts to address this systemic barrier to reconciliation often vetoed or blocked.

Intimidation, sectarian harassment, and the influence of paramilitary gangs in deeply divided and often economically deprived areas are serious issues regularly left unaddressed.

As more insidious elements seek to find a foothold in the fallout from Brexit, there has never been a more vital time to not just protect the Good Friday Agreement but to actually deliver on it

Efforts to desegregate some communities have been met with sustained campaigns of harassment, seeing families continuously forced out of their homes. In 2019 the Northern Ireland Housing Executive revealed that it had dealt with over 2,000 cases of people being forced into homelessness over a period of 3½ years, with threats from paramilitaries listed as the reason in 73 per cent of cases.

These threats don’t stop at the home. Earlier this year East Belfast’s first Irish language school was forced to halt preparations and relocate following a “hate campaign”, and a special-needs school in south Belfast faced intimidation after a Union Jack was deliberately erected at the integrated school’s entrance against the will and requests of families, students and school staff who pleaded for its removal.

Their requests were denied by the PSNI, which – after meeting with “community representatives” – suggested that should the flag be removed many more were likely to be erected in its place.

Segregated

Education remains 93 per cent segregated, and recent data from the Department of Education suggests that 70 per cent of pupils attend schools where there is less than a one in 20 chance of meeting a pupil from the other main religious tradition.

Brexit may pose the greatest threat to the delicate equilibrium of the Good Friday Agreement, but perhaps equally as damaging has been the decades of political apathy which have allowed for not only the denial of rights, but the rollback of rights.

Northern Ireland has never been more vulnerable to the habitual attempts made by the British government to unilaterally depart from agreed rights protections.

A proposed Troubles amnesty, a review of the Human Rights Act, and the recently-announced commissioning of the United Kingdom’s “official” interpretation of the history of the Troubles – one which will be decided by British government-appointed historians no less – are just the latest in a long procession of attacks on human rights.

As more insidious elements seek to find a foothold in the fallout from Brexit, there has never been a more vital time to not just protect the Good Friday Agreement but to actually deliver on it. There have been seven subsequent agreements since 1998, each with varying attempts to address the piecemeal progress in advancing human rights, and not one of these agreements have been fully implemented.

Failures remain around citizenship and identity, policing, justice, language, poverty, and women’s full and equal political participation.

Time and again commitments are made, undelivered, and reworded into a subsequent agreement, only to begin the seemingly unending cycle of rights denial once again.

Emma de Souza is a writer and citizens’ rights activist