The spirit of 1998: “Blackbirds and yellow grouse singing”
by Megan FERGUSON
29 March 2019
In the last weeks of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the Irish Pages held a seminar at Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on sharing the stories of those involved in the making and signing of the Good Friday Agreement and those who have had influence in Northern Ireland since. The event was part of the fifth year of the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics, with the intent of opening up art, ideas and debates across Belfast and encouraging people to use creative ways to explore politics, culture, and activism.
The latest issue of Irish Pages, The Belfast Agreement: Twentieth Anniversary Issue, comprises the work of 44 contributors, from both sides of the Irish border, with the majority hailing from Northern Ireland and the inclusion of the opinion of a variety of genres, genders, outlooks and backgrounds. The event was chaired by Chris Agee, editor of Irish Pages, with a panel of six influential speakers who provided their outlook on progress made since the signing of the Agreement.
The first to provide his insight was political analyst and author, Paul Arthur. He began by reminding attendees of the hurt that was felt during The Troubles, quoting Czeslaw Milosz: “There’s no other memory than the memory of wounds.” Arthur added that a critical part of our political culture is victimhood, quoting David Ervine, who said that “Northern Ireland was a place where people would travel 100 miles to be insulted.” Arthur argued that there is a political economy of helplessness, and also a fear of the unknown, throughout Northern Ireland.
Arthur spoke of the importance of the Mitchell Commission, which supported the decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland. In delivering the objectives of the Commission, Mitchell had warned that “if the vote was to remain in the past, the past would become the future, and that is something no one can desire.” Arthur also quoted from Milan Kundera’s novel, Slowness, suggesting “the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear”. In a society in which the past carries such a heavy weight, the omens for the future are not all good.
The next reading was given by writer and anthologist Patricia Craig, who described the immense effort put into the Agreement, including the amendments, commitment and compromises that had to be made by all sides. Craig described how, when agreement was close, some disgruntled Northern voices would “pipe up”, complaining about a slight or an oversight.
Craig asserted that power sharing appeared to be working until it fell victim to, as Craig described it, “DUP big headedness” and “misplaced exulting on the part of Sinn Fein”. One of the issues that has been long standing with DUP supporters is that of the Irish Language Act; Craig said that “Ulster Scots is not a language” but a dialect, comparing it to Yorkshire, Devonshire, and Cumbria. However, she believes it should be cherished and preserved, bearing in mind that many great pieces of literature are written in this dialect.
The founder of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Professor Monica McWilliams, based her reading around the evening the Agreement was signed. She spoke of how at home that night, she told her youngest son that they had made peace. He was completely under-awed, as he thought that’s what they were supposed to be doing anyway. On the other hand, her eldest son asked a very interesting question: “Does that mean all the killings will stop?” Thinking about this, McWilliams told the audience she prayed that every Friday would be a good Friday from then on.
McWilliams moved forward, looking at the aftermath of the Agreement, and of the ascension of DUP and Sinn Fein as the two leading parties. In mentioning perceptions, she discussed the importance of the photograph of Ian Paisley seated alongside his past rival. McWilliams drew attention to one of the main issues faced by the power sharing coalition — that of victims and survivors who, in her opinion, were being used to score political points, rather than having their needs met.
Poet Ruth Carr introduced her poem by remarking on how much effort went into the Good Friday Agreement, and how incredible it is that it came into being. She said, “The Agreement was everything to everyone.” For Carr, being able to vote in favour of the Agreement, which was supported by such a large majority, was a “wonderful feeling”. She compared her feelings in 1998 to those felt in the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, which was a significant a step forward for women’s rights.
Carr’s poem, “The Way I Remember It”, captures her feelings from the spring of 1998. She describes how the “knot in her chest loosened, with the blackbirds and yellow grouse singing. The momentous handshake promising something better for us all”. The poem provides a sense of hope for the future, and espouses the relief felt by many at the peaceful times that lay ahead, with fear diminishing.
Writer and novelist, Glenn Patterson, told the story of how one young performer mentioned that the audience in NI was one of the worst she had ever performed to. She mentioned they were all grumpy faced with poor body language. It then came to Patterson’s attention that the audience the performer had spoken of had been Belfast City Council. This elicited some laughter!
Patterson’s reading was called “2020”, where he recalled the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Agreement, including President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell, at an event held at Queen’s University Belfast on 10th April 2018. On the eve of that event, Patterson reflected on the increasing levels of paramilitary style attacks, providing an example from the west of the city, in which paramilitaries led a young man to waste ground to punish him in their usual style. Chillingly, Patterson reminds us that this victim was only 20 years old — the same age as the Good Friday Agreement.
The final panellist was Matthew O’Toole. He had worked as a press spokesman on Europe in Downing Street during the 2016 EU referendum. O’Toole mentions his fury at the lack of focus on Northern Ireland, and Ireland as a whole, during the referendum campaign. Over time, this has struck many as an injustice, but not a shock. He mentioned that practically everyone in Northern Ireland, both Unionist and Nationalist, “are worn out by the sheer bovine indifference that most English people show to Northern Irish politics” and believes that anyone with any connection to the island of Ireland has the right to be disgruntled. However, he put this into context by reminding listeners that English indifference helped give birth to the peace process.
The floor then opened to questions and observations from the audience.
One person spoke of how he felt a great sense of relief at the Agreement and looked to something better for the future, but now feels a great sense of uncertainty and fear looking towards a future outside the European Union.
A member of the audience, David Rose, who was involved with the Progressive Unionist Party at the time of the Agreement, mentioned that many Unionists may say they were unaware of what was involved in the Agreement; he argued that Unionist leaders did not inform their voters adequately, which he believes resulted in the split of the Ulster Unionist Party. He believes that the peace process has been very successful, but if viewed as a political process, it could be seen as less successful.
Other discussions included issues surrounding education and young people in Northern Ireland. Patterson stated that most people who left Ireland haven’t come back home due to the “1950s-style” government in Northern Ireland. Carr mentioned that the vibrancy seen in Northern Ireland in recent years is not reflected in our politics, with continuing prohibition of gay marriage and abortion rights, rights that are afforded to other parts of the UK.
One student said she had studied in England and had returned to Northern Ireland. She said that opportunities here were very limited in comparison to her friends who had travelled to America and Australia. Another student had travelled from England to study at Queen’s University, and despite having travelled to many middle eastern countries, stated that she found Northern Ireland a “culture shock”.
Overall, the event was a great success and attracted a large and diverse crowd. As a young person in Northern Ireland, who was born in the year of the Agreement, the event was very interesting and informative about the history of the country that I have grown up in. The panel captured and vividly illustrated the events of spring 1998, and the audience were moved by their words. Although the UK’s departure from the EU raises many concerns, it was apparent that all present at this event agreed that the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement must be protected, no matter what the final outcome of Brexit may be.