WE ARE FAST approaching the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. When the deal was eventually agreed there was a palpable sense of hope that after thirty years of violence and 3,529 deaths that the Northern Ireland problem had been solved for good. Ever since then despite all the challenges the agreements basic principles of power-sharing and inclusion are still intact. At the last election just one MLA was elected on a platform to dismantle current institutions in Northern Ireland.
So we have a durable form of government with broad popular support what on earth could possibly be wrong with that? Scratch the surface and there is quite a bit. In any debate about political life in the North we tend to get hypnotised by this argument that we should simply be grateful that the province has a functioning government. Yet more than a decade after the signing of the agreement I think it is now time that we started asking what exactly the current executive in Northern Ireland is doing to help heal our divided society.
Integration and segregation
Let’s take a look at education. According to recent polls a record 79 per cent of people support the principle of integrated education. Moreover the vast majority believe that ending the segregated system is necessary to bridge the sectarian divide. Yet despite this overwhelming support just 7 per cent of children in Northern Ireland are educated at an integrated school. The sad fact of life for many in the province is that they never meet somebody from the other side of the divide until they go to university.
But the segregation does not just exist on the playground. Take the issue of peace walls. At the moment there are 90 of these constructions separating the two communities throughout Northern Ireland which represents an increase since the agreement was signed. These divisions have a wider economic impact as health, education and transport services are in places divided for both communities. The total cost of this division has been estimated at £1.5 billion per year.
Who are the victims?
Then we have what is the most tragic failure and that is dealing with victims of the Troubles. We currently have in Northern Ireland literally thousands of people who are still attempting to deal with the fallout of three decades of violence. And yet we are still nowhere near finding an agreed definition of just who is a victim? Nor are we devoting enough attention to how we deal with the physical and mental anguish that many people are still dealing with today. Victims have in many ways been sidelined.
Think about it for a moment and it begins to make sense. How many of us can remember the names of republican or loyalist paramilitaries that died during the Troubles? Yet how many people could recognise the name of people like Gordon Wilson; who after losing his daughter in the Enniskillen bomb bravely looked into the camera and forgave those who planted the bomb. Two decades after conducting the interview journalist Chris Moore recalled that ‘it was the closest I ever came to a saint.’ Yet people like Wilson, who showed immense courage are now largely forgotten. It seems that the drive to achieve a political settlement has come at a real cost to those who are simply seeking the truth about what happened to their loved ones.
Progress made, but there’s still a long way to go
I often hear the statement that Northern Ireland has come a long way over the last fifteen years. While this is true, sometimes when we look at how far we have come; we forget that in many ways we have a long way to go. We cannot afford to hang the ‘mission accomplished’ banner over the peace process. There is nothing inevitable about peace. It is something that needs to be continuously worked at.
The Good Friday Agreement was a real achievement in 1998. Those who helped put it together should rightly be proud of their work. But we should not forget that healing the wounds of the past is a process and not an event. Sadly at the moment this process of reconciliation appears to be on auto pilot as politicians have taken their eye off the ball. We are fifteen years on from this agreement and we still have a society and a government for that matter that is essentially based upon what side of the community you come from.
Why is it important to raise these challenges now? I feel that after such a long period of time, we need to raise the bar for politicians. We should ask of all the parties that have a stake in the peace process what they are doing to deal with the past and deliver a shared future. Sadly instead of driving this agenda forward politicians appear to be asleep at the wheel. As we reflect on this anniversary; we need to adopt an attitude of being grateful for the peace but now we want the real societal progress that should come with it.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.