‘The politics of peace not reconciliation’: the Good Friday Agreement legacy
by Matthew O’HARA
4 April 2023
The Linen Hall Library, as part of its Origins & Legacies: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement project, hosted a discussion among younger Northern Ireland Assembly MLAs on “The Legacy of the Agreement”. Chaired by former BBC journalist and a current library governor, Seamus McKee, the panellists were Padraig Delargy MLA (Sinn Fein), Phillip Brett MLA (DUP), Kate Nicholl MLA (Alliance), John Stewart MLA (UUP), and Cara Hunter MLA (SDLP).
McKee began by asking the audience how many of them had actually read the full text of the 1998 peace accord. Some confidently shot up their hands, while others murmured and chuckled in embarrassment.
He opened the conversation by asking each panellist how old they were when the agreement was signed, and what they thought had changed in the 25 years since.
Kate Nicholl answered, “I was just shy of 10.”
She said, “The obvious and best change is peace,” but noted shortcomings for her:
“We still have problems of division in Northern Ireland, and in many ways [it] is more segregated, especially in education. There are also problems regarding the role paramilitaries have in some of our communities.”
Padraig Delargy answered, “I was only two when the agreement was signed, so it is not something I can particularly remember.”
He agreed with Nicholl in regard to the achievement of peace: “And we still have that peace. There has been an entire generation that has not grown up in conflict.”
Cara Hunter answered, “I was three.”
She also remarked about the presence of post-agreement peace: “We are so blessed to have that peace because peace is invaluable.”
Hunter repeated similar concerns about paramilitaries and “the grip they have on our communities… but the Good Friday Agreement offers us a chance to work together, live together, and play together.”
Phillip Brett answered, “I was seven… and came from a vehemently ‘yes’ household.”:
“My mother was a UUP member, and my father was an SDLP councillor… but the agreement afforded us an opportunity to explore our own political ideologies.”
John Stewart answered, “I am 40 next week, so I would have been doing my A-Levels.” He remembered the discussions and debates in school and that he was “very much in the pro-agreement camp”.
He also recalled one of his first memories of the Troubles — the day of the Shankill Road bombing (23 October 1993) — “crying with my mother as we watched on the television emergency services carrying the bodies”. He added, “Thankfully, that is a history lesson, and it is history because of the agreement.”
McKee asked the panellists whether they would vote in favour of the agreement today.
Cara Hunter, Kate Nicholl, John Stewart, and Padraig Delargy all agreed that they would, with Philip Brett stating his reservations:
“There are improvements needed, particularly when it came to victims. So, therefore I could not support it,” Brett said.
McKee asked what the legacy of the agreement is.
Nicholl repeated that it is peace:
“I can’t imagine what society would look like now if we didn’t have peace, and I think that is indicative of the magnitude of what was achieved and what we can achieve when we all come together.”
Delargy said that the agreement “afforded us the opportunity for change and to realise the potential of the agreement, through cross-party agreement”.
Hunter said, “It transformed our society… We know lives have been saved and that we didn’t have to suffer another 3,500 lives lost.”
Brett stated, “It shows that Northern Ireland works best when there is cross-community support.”
Stewart spoke about the post-agreement development of a tourism sector and how the agreement is hailed internationally as an example of how a peace process can work.
McKee asked the panellists a more personal question, “What got you into politics?”
“The murder of my brother Gavin got me into politics,” Phillip Brett answered, adding:
“I said earlier how I come from a mixed background. My father grew up on the Andersonstown Road and my mother grew up in Ardoyne. We grew up in Glengormley, and my brother mixed with his friends who played at the local GAA clubs. My brother was mistaken to be a Catholic and he was murdered by the UDA, who claim to be defenders of Ulster, but they are nothing but thugs.
“That is why I got into politics. I didn’t want any family to go through what mine did, and I think the Good Friday Agreement has failed victims, especially with the release of prisoners.”
Cara Hunter said she was inspired by the “promise of prosperity in the agreement”:
“But I also got into politics on other key issues, such as mental health facilities. Our mental health cases are 25% higher than in any other part of the UK or Ireland, and that is a disgrace.”
Padraig Delargy described how he grew up in Derry/Londonderry, and that key political figures such as John Hume and Martin McGuinness lived either next door to him or a handful of streets away:
“I saw leadership in my community and I felt like I had something to offer.”
Kate Nicholl explained how she had anti-apartheid grandparents and was always aware of social inequalities, yet she was “really inspired working for Anna Lo [former MLA; Alliance], hearing her talk about the environment and young people”.
McKee asked what the panellists thought about the relationship between the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and young people: “They don’t know much about the agreement, do they?”
It was revealed that only Stewart and Delargy received education on the agreement while they were at school. Delargy, interestingly, said that those not being taught anything about the peace accord as necessarily a bad thing:
“Because there is always going to be different narratives of it anyway; the agreement is held in higher regard by some communities.”
Stewart recalled how he participated in mock debates while in school and that he was “always on the side that advocated for the agreement”.
Hunter, Brett, and Nicholl also offered an optimistic analysis, but recognised some shortcomings. For example, Nicholl said:
“I think for young people, there is no sense of hope because the opportunities indicated in the agreement haven’t come yet, and while there is no [Northern Ireland] executive, they cannot be implemented.”
Brett summarised the discussion with his final remark:
“Young people may not be learning about the agreement… but they’re living it. The shortcoming of that is that they got the politics of peace, but they haven’t got the politics of reconciliation. And I think that is something we all need to take responsibility for.”
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