‘Rights of people not identities’: GFA 25 years on

‘Rights of people not identities’: GFA 25 years on
15 April 2023

As part of a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Corrymeela hosted a panel discussion, “25 Years On”, to explore what peacemaking means when engaging with a generation and a society that increasingly has not experienced the conflict themselves.

The panel discussion was chaired by Alan Meban, a member of the Corrymeela community. The panel consisted of Hedley Abernethy (program manager, Legacies of Conflict), Tara Grace Connolly (first youth delegate to the United Nations from Northern Ireland), Emma De Souza (writer and campaigner), and Israel Eguaogie (co-ordinator, Belfast City of Sanctuary).

Meban’s first question to the panellists was: “What do you think peacemaking might look like ten years from now at the 35th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement?”  

Abernethy explained that he recently worked on PhD research, called state policies of reparations for victims of the political conflict in Northern Ireland. During his studies, he found out that the main reason people committed acts of violence is that they felt disrespected. Therefore, according to Abernethy, in the future it is important for peacemakers to look at how we can create more elements and levels of respect in society.

Connolly agreed with this, but noted that the resources to achieve this are not there at the moment: “There is a mismatch of the direction we need to go, and the resources required to do it”. Connolly furthermore said that for her the transition of peacemakers is important, since there will be an increasing number of peacemakers that have not experienced the conflict and the peace process themselves.

Eguaogie emphasized three elements that he believes are very important for the future of the peace process. First, healing has yet to take place (enough) and therefore needs to get more attention. Second, the increasing diversity within society can help to improve the peace process, since it shows people that they do not just fit into one box. It can also help to build bridges between people. Third, he believes that reviewing the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is important. The elements of the agreement that have not worked need to be reviewed and adjusted.

According to De Souza, the people of Northern Ireland need to be much more outspoken and active. One way to achieve this, she argued, is by properly funding civic society. De Souza also said: “We need to recognize where we are as a society.” As an example, she gave the education system which is still highly segregated: “This leads to new generations growing up with the same divisions as the generations before them.” For the future, she said that an action plan needs to be developed for the implementation of the Agreement, thereby connecting to the point that Eguaogie made earlier about reviewing the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Meban directed his next question at Abernathy: “How do we deal with the fact that we are struggling with who we are and how we remember the past?” Abernathy believes that in Northern Ireland people are obsessed with national identity. He illustrated this with an example from the census of Northern Ireland. Between 2011 and 2021, the census showed that the percentage of people identifying as British has dropped from 10 to 8 per cent, while the percentage of people identifying as Irish has increased by about 5 per cent. Instead of just looking at these numbers, Abernathy said that we need to have a conversation about why this happens and what this means. He furthermore said that we need to nuance the conversations about ethnic and national identity, because Belfast and Northern Ireland are not the same place as they were in 1998; they have become much more diverse.

After this, Meban touched upon the issue of youth workers who are asked to build peace in their communities. He asked Connolly: “How much of the Troubles do they have to drag into it? And how much is about recognizing that we have our own ‘small troubles’ today, like inequality, prejudice, and racism?” Connolly replied that almost all the problems youth workers have to deal with today link back to the Troubles. Therefore, there is a big challenge ahead for them, since they carry a big part of the peacemaking on their shoulders: “There are so many challenges for new youth workers, and they seem to only be getting bigger and bigger.” There does not seem to be enough interest from the Northern Ireland Assembly to help them, Connolly argued.

Meban asked De Souza: “Is there too much talking about the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement? Do we need to take the focus off that?” De Souza answered “yes” and that instead of just talking about the Agreement, it should be more about the implementation of it. She explained that in Northern Ireland there is a “negative peace” rather than a “positive peace”. The only way to achieve a positive peace, according to De Souza, is through good governance, which is not there at the moment. For the future, she would like to see a more bottom-up approach to try and change things. In her opinion, a citizens’ assembly every year would be a good vehicle to start talking about reforms from a bottom-up perspective. She explained that this would also send a message to the wider society that their views matter and are being heard.

At the end of the panel discussion, there came a question from the audience: “Where does the ability lie in Northern Ireland to say goodbye to the frame of labelling people, and we are going to act as if this frame is not here?”

According to De Souza, civic society in Northern Ireland has been pushed aside, and because of that, the capacity to break away from the frame has not been there. Therefore, to cut loose from the frame there needs to be a bridge between civic society and the political institutions. Oguaogie agreed with this and added that a Northern Ireland Citizens’ Assembly could be a platform to build that bridge. He furthermore said that representation is a very important element in this: “People want to see a representation of themselves in politics. This is something that is not happening enough at the moment.”

The final words of the panel discussion went back to the main topic: what will peacemaking look like ten years from now? The main thing that needs to be achieved, according to Abernathy, is a shift in the framing of peacemaking. He said that it is about the protection and fulfilment of the rights of people instead of religion and identity. By looking at rights the dynamics change. It then becomes about how can we protect the rights of everyone since we are all the same.

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