When Hope and History Rhyme
Friday 13th April 2018
I was very privileged this week to be invited to attend Queen’s University Belfast for the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
For the past 20 years, I have kept moments of the past close to me in my office. Tony’s quote, ‘’A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.’’ Others are Crispin Rodwell’s brilliant photo ‘’A Time for Peace’’ and Gusty Spence’s book and resignation speech on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Chilling reflections on moments of the past were awakened this week with the commemoration of three little words, the Good Friday Agreement. It was not as much who attended, but we remembered those who could not. David Ervine, Fr Denis Fall, Fr Alec Reid, Martin McGuinness, John Hume and the thousands of people who lost their lives and their families disturbed forever.
I cannot forget the serial chip stealer Mo Mowlam. Mo was the person the unionists always called on to resign. In the final year, the unionists called for her resignation ten times. This was less than the previous years.
The event at Queen’s was dignified and meaningful. In my professional career, I was always one seat behind the players, an ideal vantage point. This week, eloquent and noted speakers took time to remember John and Albert, who gave their time too. I clearly recall the meeting in Dublin Castle when Albert Reynolds, for once, lost his temper with British officials and John Major, snapping a pencil in anger.
Then there were the meetings with Dr Ian Paisley, who was very different. It was Ian’s way or no way. His remarkable tone was to temper later on in time.
‘’You were lifted twice for membership of the IRA’’, quipped the former Deputy Chief of Police, Derry man Peter Sheridan and now Chief Executive of Co-Operation, when talking to Danny Morrison.
Adams was late, so was Arlene Foster. In the front row, Jonathon Powell, Seamus Mallon, Monica McWilliams, Peter Robinson and David Trimble. It was a day that only Seamus Heaney could have imagined, ‘’when hope and history rhymed’.
The most powerful address was from Seamus Mallon of the SDLP. After 20 years, he is still angry; ‘’I watched the hypocrisies, which are unbelievable, and the untruths, which are believable. Politics has been debased and diminished by these two political silos which have almost balkanised the Northern Ireland that I live in.’’
It was great to be in Belfast this week for all the right reasons, but I still can’t help feeling that Northern Ireland has the capacity to be in the news for the wrong reasons. As far as the majority of people are concerned, there is no going back. The people of Northern Ireland are annoyed that the leaders of their parties can sit side by side at Queen’s, laugh and enjoy the day but they cannot sit and face each other across the table to form a Government and bring its assembly back in play after fifteen months of idleness.
As President Clinton said, ‘’I basically believe you should celebrate the Good Friday Agreement not for what happened, but for what can happen.’’
The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will be a major sticking point with the Tory party. There are stark choices for the British Prime Minister Teresa May. Ireland will undoubtedly be the Achilles heel of Brexit due to the three little words.
During the event, noted people of the peace process spoke to me about their grave concerns. One said; ‘’Look today there are no senior members of the British Government here.’’ This speaker went on to say; ‘’it is in the British Government’s interests to tear up the agreement as it hinders progress’’. Another said; ‘anyone who is senior in the Irish Government is junior in the complexity of peace broking and uniting parties.’’
In case anyone forgets, the three little words is an international treaty committing the British Government to power-sharing and devolution in Northern Ireland and giving the Irish Government a stake in guaranteeing cross border roles will not hinder either power-sharing or the free flow of people and goods.
One cannot help thinking that if the British Government had its way it would tear up the three little word document to allow acceleration of its Brexit strategy.
Thankfully, the British Government will not be the arbiter, despite the fact that the only option is that a hard border remains.
The pending pains of Brexit loom large on the horizon. Despite what they tell you, the border issue is a burning issue from the British Government as the people on the island of Ireland are fed platitudes and rhetoric that there will be no hard border.
Having worked and witnessed the evolution of Northern Ireland in the last 20 years, the construction sites and the building cranes on the skyline in Belfast must give us all hope.