‘The Good Friday Agreement didn’t fail this generation, it saved it’: a Literific debate

‘The Good Friday Agreement didn’t fail this generation, it saved it’: a Literific debate
by Matthew O’HARA
26 March 2023

The Literary and Scientific Society (Literific) of Queen’s University Belfast, in cooperation with the Imagine Festival, hosted a debate, “Has the Good Friday Agreement failed our Generation?”, at the Great Hall in the Lanyon Building.

The proposition of the debate was “This House believes the Good Friday Agreement has failed our generation.”

Tom BURNS; Ciara SWAIL; Dr Stephen GOSS; Peter, Lord WEIR of Ballyholme; Tailte McSPARRON (Chair, Literific); Unknown; David KERR; Eóin TENNYSON MLA; Séamus de FAOITE, and Róisín KEENAN. The Literary and Scientific Society (Literific) debate, “This House believes the Good Friday Agreement has failed our generation”. Imagine Festival. Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Source: Facebook.

The argument for the proposition consisted of Tom Burns (law and politics student), Peter, Lord Weir of Ballyholme (DUP), Stephen Goss (academic historian), and Ciara Swail (former training officer and honorary life member, Literific).

The opposition was comprised of David Kerr (press secretary to David, Lord Trimble as first minister), Eóin Tennyson MLA (Alliance), Councillor Séamus de Faoite (SDLP), and Róisín Keenan (president of the Feminist and Equality Society). 

Tailte McSparron (chair, Literific) stated the rules of the debate which follow the customs of the traditional Literific debating format. The rules stipulated that both the audience and those involved in the debate could intervene in the speaker’s speech by stating ‘on that point’. However, it was at the speaker’s discretion to permit this intervention.  There was a vote on the motion from audience members before each participant gave their seven-minute speech. 

The vote stood at 6 in favour of the proposition, 40 in favour of the opposition, and 7 abstaining.

The first speaker was Tom Burns, who argued for the proposition. 

Burns began by stating that the Good Friday Agreement is “one of the most significant documents signed”, but that it has suffered “the brunt of failures and unfinished legacy.”:

“The Agreement has left us stuck in continuous deadlock and has only seen an increase in political division… Because of this deadlock, our services [and] our cancer strategy [lag] behind other parts of the UK and our infrastructure has seen no funding.”

Burns offered some humour of the fact that both he and Lord Weir were in agreement on this issue:

“This is one of the few things that Lord Weir and I would agree on, and his is a party which shows that dysfunction is engrained into our institutions.”

Burns continued, “The DUP’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol and subsequently the Windsor Framework has seen another Stormont deadlock… but as the largest unionist party, the party knows it won’t erode their base even if it means no government.” 

He gave stark figures that reflected the disenfranchisement of young people like himself.:

“17,000 young people left Northern Ireland in 2018–2019, and do not intend to come back.  How can we call the Agreement a success when our leading export is our young people?

Burns concluded, “The Good Friday Agreement was a turning point, but we deserve more than peace.  We deserve proper political leadership, competitive education, and a society in which you can invest.”

The next speaker, David Kerr, opened his statement in support of the opposition:

“The Good Friday Agreement didn’t fail this generation, it saved it. All you have to do is compare my generation’s experience.”

Kerr then made a very poignant statement that left all in abject silence:

“I grew up with Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the murder of Jean McConville, the Kingsmill Massacre, the Shankill Bombing, where Arlene Foster couldn’t get on her school bus without fear of getting blown up, where John Finucane saw his father lay dead after being shot.

“I grew up in a society where just being a businessman was justification for your murder. I grew up in a society where just being a Catholic or a Protestant was justification for your murder.”

He then cited positive statistics and features of Northern Ireland that have occurred since the peace agreement was achieved:

“Since 1998, there has been a 90% reduction in terrorist activity, unemployment is less than 4%, and 51% of our energy now comes from renewable energy sources.”

Kerr continued:

“Northern Ireland is an exciting hub for business and artificial intelligence, has a buoyant films and arts industry, and there is evidence that there has been transformative change in every county across Northern Ireland… something I am certain would not be achieved if we still had direct rule.”

He claimed shortcomings in aspects of the agreement and how it has been undermined in subsequent agreements:

“There were failures with the release of prisoners and de-commissioning of weapons which led to instability… Other failures were at the St Andrews Agreement, where the DUP and Sinn Fein changed the voting rules which blackmailed their base into voting for them and led to more polarisation.”

Kerr concluded: “I believe that we haven’t fulfilled the potential of the Good Friday Agreement… but I also believe it is a 50-year project.”

Lord Weir was the next speaker, speaking for the proposition. 

Weir began his speech: “I don’t deny the significance of the agreement, nor do I decry those who brought about it… I would contend that the successes aren’t as strong… but we do have peace and we are a lot better off.”

He stated that the agreement led to “the corruption of democracy” and a “corruption of justice”.

On the note of a “corruption of democracy”, Weir cited it “blurred the lines of terrorism and democracy”, giving “substance to the narrative to the argument ‘there was no alternative’”.

When discussing the “corruption of justice”, Weir said:

“The release of prisoners as a result of the Good Friday Agreement elevated terrorists above those who committed a non-political crime, and denied justice to the victims and the victims’ families.

“The Legacy Bill introduced by the Conservatives and that is currently being debated in the House of Lords owes its Genesis with the Good Friday Agreement.”

Weir concluded by stating that the agreement “missed the opportunity for community cohesion on legacy and could have done better; it should have done better.”

Next to speak in opposition was Eóin Tennyson MLA. 

He began: “I am of the generation who was born after the agreement was signed,” and that the agreement provided “pragmatic, win-win politics”.

“I see a Northern Ireland that is immeasurably better than what my parents grew up in and while there is much to do, there is undeniable progress,” he said.

 Tennyson conceded that many of the aspirations led out in the agreement, remain unfulfilled:

“While there is an absence of violence, in some ways Northern Ireland remains more segregated, with still no integrated education and some political parties trying to frustrate this progress and many housing estates being of a single identity.”

He outlined how the agreement “still holds the solutions to our problems”:

“Northern Ireland is rainbow-coloured and therefore the structures need to evolve, and real change is needed… Contained within the agreement is a provision for review.  What Alliance seeks to do is enshrine power sharing, provide sustainable government, and ensure no one will be excluded but also that no one party can leave the field and take the ball with them.”

Tennyson concluded, “Failure does not lie with the agreement, but it does with the politicians who failed to implement it.”

Councillor Séamas De Faoite echoed Tennyson’s comments, stating, “Politics has failed, the agreement hasn’t.”:

“The Agreement recognised compromise was the only path forward… The reality is, it’s the best system we have…there is no alternative. We owe it to David Trimble and John Hume to make it work.

“And if I can finish by saying one more thing, I am an Irish nationalist and I have an aspiration for constitutional change on this island. The agreement gave us the political space to have constitutional viewpoints and debates in a peaceful way.”

Ciara Swail, arguing for the proposition, gave a speech laced with humour and satirical indictments about the political dynamics of Northern Ireland.

She began her speech echoing the sentiments expressed by Tom Burns, that “two-thirds of young people don’t want to return to this place”:

“The Good Friday Agreement states that you must classify yourself as unionist, nationalist, or other, but it did not think what that would look like in practice.”

She continued, “we live in a society where bread-and-budder issues take a backseat and constitutional preferences are prioritised.”

“The agreement also talks about mutual respect, legacy and reconciling the past yet we still live in a society where there is segregated education…how are we expected to reconcile when we haven’t even met each other? As someone who attended a Catholic Grammar and Secondary school, I didn’t meet a Protestant until I was 18,” she said.

Swail continued:

“Our government is so fragile and has only functioned three-fifths since 1998. It is a sad indictment that there are websites such as https://howlonghasnorthernirelandnothadagovernment.com/. The instability has cost us money, with an estimated loss of £1 billion from 2017–2022 alone.”

Swail concluded her argument, stating, “We’re fed up… and can you really blame us?”

Róisín Keenan, who was the last speaker of the debate, began her statement by saying, “They’ve invited me to change the tempo of this argument.”

What followed was a series of rebukes from Kennan about some of the statements made by those in favour of the proposition, but it was spoken and received in good nature.

“We have more opportunities than what the previous generations had and we have not been failed, said Kenna.

She continued that the agreement brought peace and “we were afforded the opportunity not to lose another 3,600 people”:

“Our peace is invaluable, and the Good Friday Agreement was done in good faith. But now we find ourselves in a position where politicians seek to exploit the Good Friday Agreement and misuse it for their own agendas.”

Kenna concluded, “If the Good Friday Agreement was actually implemented, we wouldn’t be having this debate. And I just want to remind everyone of the words of John Hume when he said ‘the whole world is in support of this agreement.’”

The audience was then asked again to vote on the motion after hearing all participants’ debates.

The vote stood at 14 for the proposition (an increase of 8,) 30 for the opposition (a decrease of 10), and 7 abstained (no change).

It was therefore declared that the opposition had won the argument (notably, with a reduced majority).

The plethora of opinions and the respectful and humorous manner in which the subject was debated is something the wider public may welcome when politicians debate our future.

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