OPINION: After 25 years, time to get real about reconciliation work to be done
by Seymour HOPE
7 April 2023
I remember vividly sitting in Cedar Haven, one of the residences at Corrymeela, with an American who was a volunteer at the centre there, watching the live broadcast of the referendum result in May 1998. When the result was announced, we didn’t jump up and down, or cheer. We just sat there, in silence. This was really it. It’s done. We’re moving on. Happy days.
Our silent appreciation wasn’t discussed. For me, it was confirmation that the people of this island had chosen to support the politicians who had made the agreement. That was crucial. More importantly, it was to support those who had been bereaved or injured as a result of the conflict. Even though they couldn’t have their loved one, or their limb, back, there would be no more lost lives, or lost limbs.
The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement is a time to reflect on how our society has progressed over the last quarter of a century and to take stock of what we need to do over the next quarter. To quote the old election slogan: “A lot done, more to do”.
The horror and pain of day-to-day violent conflict more or less ceased as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. However, Omagh happened just three months after the referendum, and there have been various other violent killings since then. It is estimated that around 160 people have died in “conflict-related” incidents since 1998.
But by and large, a generation of young people have grown up in a society that has been free of conflict for the last 25 years, including my own 18-year-old son, and for that we should be grateful.
However, while the fighting stopped, the conflict didn’t.
While generally people are able to be free to go about their lives relatively unrestricted, our society is probably more structurally segregated now than in 1998 and our politics even more so. There are four areas that I feel we need to address in a genuine manner:
Segregation. There are more peace walls in Belfast now than there were in 1998. Only 67 of 976 schools — representing around 7% of students in Northern Ireland — are formally integrated. In Belfast, social housing is up to 96% segregated along religious lines. Our transport system still caters for predominantly single-identity routes, apart from the Glider, running since 2018 as the first time a citizen could travel from west Belfast to east Belfast and vice-versa, without having to get off at the city hall and change buses. We continue to have a legacy of a duplicated service provision model that is not conducive to sharing and relationship building. In effect, we have shared out our public services rather than share them.
Justice. We have not done any semblance of justice to the victims and survivors of the conflict. The vast majority of memorials within our society are to former combatants of the conflict. Innocent people — out shopping, or having a drink, or children who were out playing — were killed by bombs and bullets, both paramilitary and state, and have not been truly commemorated or remembered in a post-conflict society. Worse still, those who had the guns, paramilitary and state, continue to seek to justify their actions in the conflict.
Generosity. We continue to demonise others for their cultural, political, linguistic, and religious identity. There has been no real recognition and as such, no generosity shown to others’ identities. When this lack of generosity manifests itself in the public space at cultural or political events, we only serve to entrench the sense of grievance and division within the “other”, that which the Good Friday Agreement tried to free us from.
Reconciliation. We have not engaged in any genuine process of true reconciliation. While the word reconciliation has been used a lot, we have yet to define what this means, or more importantly what it involves. Reconciliation has to be about all of us, looking at ourselves and asking, “What are my true feelings towards others? What are my prejudices about others? What do I need to change about myself in order to build genuine, honest and real relationships with others?” This process has not happened, nor has anyone called for it to happen. The only path to a truly peaceful and equitable society is via a genuine process of reconciliation. A notion of reconciliation that continues to demand that ‘they’ need to change is false. Engagement in processes of reconciliation for a particular political outcome is also false.
So, while it is important to mark and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it is also a point in time to pause and look at where our society currently is.
We are still a divided society, with a segregated political, social, and civic system. We have not done the work of reconciliation, and we have failed those who suffered the most during the conflict. We continue to display a lack of genuine generosity to “other” communities, and we are too quick to blame “them” for “our” problems and grievances.
Despite that, and in spite of that, the younger generations have decided to get on with their lives in a much more open and accepting way. They don’t hold onto the baggage of prejudice and division that the political class and older generations seem to do.
Hopefully, over the next 25 years these will be the areas that we can change, in order to create a truly peaceful society that values, celebrates, and is generous to all of our people and all of our identities.
In the meantime, let’s be thankful for those that made the agreement and subsequent agreements. Let us also particularly remember those no longer here to see its fruits: Mo Mowlam, David Irvine, Ian Paisley, David Trimble, Martin McGuinness, Seamus Mallon, and John Hume.
As a tribute to them and as a gift to ourselves, let us all refocus and get real about the work that still needs to be done to dismantle segregation and build genuine reconciliation.
Seymour HOPE is a pseudonym.