Ten Years

Tenth anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement yesterday.  I have ended up with conflicting views of it.  Through the last ten years of grinding movement towards peace, it survived all challenges and remained the ‘only show in town.’  People who might otherwise have died are alive today because of it.  But it was deeply flawed.  It strengthened the extremes at the expense of the centre – when one might have expected it to marginalise the extremes.  Gary McKeone, writing in today’s Independent, has a sharp piece: ‘The lesson of the peace process: terror works.’  His thesis is that the Agreement empowered those political parties which brought to the table the implicit threat of violence.

I have long understood that political agreements tend to be made by politicians of the right rather than by liberals.  That’s partly because those politicians make it impossible for more liberal politicians to do the deals because they are always being attacked from the right.  So now we have what are known in Northern Ireland as the ‘chuckle brothers’ – Paisley and McGuinness – apparently content to work together.  The irony is that the strongest conviction politicians on each side are the ones who seem prepared to make and operate an agreement based almost entirely on pragmatism.  A very strange world.


  1. Might the parable of the (pragmatic) unjust steward be relevant here?? I spent 8 good years in N.I. — it’s of course good to see the change now.

  2. I don’t know either – just glad they are, in the final analysis. But I get a bit anxious when massive issues of principle are just put away in the name of pragmatism. But maybe that’s how the world actually works – in the best sense.

  3. Maybe the fact that they are working together suggests they are less extreme? I don’t know.

  4. Yes it is more normal on many levels. Even at the time of the last Assembly election, it was clear that change was coming. The election posters and literature were all about ‘normal’ political issues – education, environment, care of the elderly .. – for the first time in my lifetime.

    Yes the ‘traditional’ parties grew slack, lacked decent constituency organisation – certainly nothing like the polished ‘on message’ quality of Sinn Fein and the DUP

    But I continue to find it difficult to celebrate the pragmatism of extreme polticians who decide to work together – having made it impossible for politicians of integrity to do so for decades. And people were dying.

  5. I suppose it’s easy enough for me to be optimistic (naively?) about the current situation in NI resulting from the 1998 agreement, since I haven’t lived there since well before the ‘Troubles’ began, and I don’t have to experience the daily evidence of polarisation at the community level. I do agree with you and Gary that the agreement is far from perfect.

    Nevertheless, what appears to be happening bears some resemblance to ‘real’ politics, in the sense that the appeal to constituents is no longer expressed in the language of historic prejudice, but in the effective defence of mundane, bread-and-butter interests by their elected representatives. The frustrating thing about Paisley has always been that when he laid aside his bullroaring bigotry, he could be one of the best constituency politicians in the UK, serving all his constituents with exemplary impartiality. In a comparable way, Sinn Fein seems to be the only party looking after the interests of the working class. Inevitably, their followers are mostly Catholic at the moment, but in principle there is no reason why in the long run that working-class constituency should not broaden to transcend sectarian boundaries.

    We probably have to resign ourselves to their being two parallel political nations in NI for the time being, but the more we can normalise political life, the more hope there is that it will be conducted along the lines of pragmatic approaches to real issues rather than historic griefs.

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