On 2 December 1999, the British and Irish governments formally notified each other that all the necessary arrangements were in place to implement the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement that had been signed on 10 April 1998, and endorsed by voters on both sides of the Northern Irish border later that year. Twenty years on, with Brexit and the ongoing political deadlock in Northern Ireland casting shadows over its future, how do we assess the Agreement’s legacy?
There were hopes that the large pro-Agreement referendum majorities marked a fresh start across the island of Ireland, and a move away from decades of violence. Sadly, sectarian attacks during the July marching season continued and the overwhelming public support for the Agreement began to wain by the time of its implementation. The reality on Northern Ireland’s streets jarred with newspaper reports of ‘champagne flow[ing] freely’ at the notification ceremony for dignitaries hosted by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs at Iveagh House in Dublin. The Irish Independent optimistically proclaimed that the day ‘buried the ghosts of the past’, while the Irish Examiner quoted Taoiseach Bertie Ahern: ‘We have lived, for too long, with the consequences of the failures of the past. We can now move into a new future rich in the promise of peace, partnership, and prosperity.’
Today the Agreement is seen as hugely successful in largely ending sustained sectarian violence across these islands. What is often forgotten are the difficulties that moderate nationalists and unionists faced in working together to put the Agreement into action. The new Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, for example, struggled in their initial priority of decommissioning paramilitary weapons. Within two months decommissioning talks were suspended as a result of poor progress. Ongoing, albeit less intense, paramilitary activity including punishment attacks and rioting damaged unionist faith in the Agreement, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took advantage with its hardline opposition, eventually becoming the leading unionist party in 2003. The Agreement was fragile in these early days of its implementation.
Two decades of devolution have seen the Assembly and Executive suspended on many occasions due to disagreements between unionist and nationalist leaders, and further agreements (most notably at St Andrews in 2006) have been required. Even the name of the Agreement has been politically contested, with many unionists preferring to refer to the ‘Belfast Agreement’ rather than use the title based on the timing of its signing. Possibly as a result of this troubled history, there has been little serious analysis of the societal and cultural impact of the Agreement across Britain and Ireland. In an effort to redress this balance, in April 2018, alongside Dr George Legg and Dr Caroline Magennis, I co-organised the ‘Agreement 20’ conference in Manchester to explore its influence and legacy. The poignancy of evaluating the Agreement in light of Brexit, which has put fundamental aspects of it under threat, was not lost on the attendees.
Perhaps the most serious criticism of the Agreement remains the lack of policy and direction for reconciliation processes, with thousands still living with the painful legacy of conflict. Of course, lessons should be learned from failures elsewhere, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the South African peace process, but there are surely ways forward that can help heal wounds. My current research examines religious responses to funerals throughout the Troubles, during which more than 3,600 people were killed, and funerals became an opportunity for groups to advocate their cause. Republican and loyalist funerals, modelled after military-style events, often resulted in a resurgence of popular support. So far, my interviews with more than 40 religious actors, republicans, loyalists, members of the security forces, journalists, and British and Irish government officials highlight continued conflict-related grief acts as a significant barrier to reconciliation. In addition to the lack of government-directed reconciliation efforts, there remains an often-unspoken grief for lost lives, and too few resources to help individuals and society to move forward together.
Yet despite these problems the Agreement has achieved extraordinary successes in peace and politics, and there has been a radical change in Northern Ireland’s society since its implementation. The emergence and continued development of a cross-community ‘Northern Irish’ identity, however controversial, could explain the rise in support for moderate parties outside the nationalist/unionist dichotomy. The results of the 2011 Census (the first time the survey included an identity option), indicated that half of the population considered themselves at least partially ‘Northern Irish’, perhaps demonstrating a changing attitude within a younger population keen to emphasise their unity rather than their differences. Identity in Northern Ireland is ‘fluid not fixed’.
Cultural change since the Agreement is an area that demands greater attention. The removal of regular news headlines of bombings and attacks has allowed a new space for Northern Ireland to be seen through the medium of television shows, film, and literature. The success of Lisa McGee’s TV comedy ‘Derry Girls’, and Anna Burn’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman, have showcased new voices and stories that are beginning to change how people both inside and outside Northern Ireland think about the Troubles, and the achievement of peace. Twenty years on, in the shadow of Brexit, we are still reflecting on what the Agreement means to past, present, and future.