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Column: Though the Good Friday Agreement brought peace, we should never forget the past

On this date 15 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. While we have come along way, we shouldn’t take the peace we have for granted, writes Ben English.

Ben English

The recent death of Margaret Thatcher is a reminder of the progress Ireland has made since The Troubles which defined that political era. On the 15th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Ben English explains why we still have a duty to care about peace in Northern Ireland.

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, a Nokia was the trending mobile, a smartphone didn’t exist, and the Irish Punt was officially in its final year. Today, 10 April, marks the the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and many will be considering whether the topic of peace on the island of Ireland is still relevant.

Over the last fifteen years, what poet Eavan Boland described as “a cause ruined, a world betrayed” has transformed into a functioning and civil society. Northern Ireland has come a long way from the day when Tony Blair felt the hand of history on his shoulder and when the gun was taken out of politics. In the Republic of Ireland, a question I often come across is: “Why care? Forgiven and forgotten, water under the bridge”.

In truth, peace in Northern Ireland has never mattered more.

A Lasting Legacy

The lasting effects of the Good Friday Agreement are woven into everyday life in the North and continue to shape the landscape of a renewed society. Recently, the Northern Executive announced a £5 million relief package for farmers who lost livestock as a result of freezing conditions. Fifteen years ago, such  a simple measure could not have been implemented as there was no functional government in place to perform that civic duty. The additional layers West Minister would have rendered such a move impossible.

However, today is different. The Northern Executive, like every government, has its difficulties but is now united as a result of a functioning peace agreement. Through government-funded initiatives like Invest NI, Northern Ireland has established itself as an economic hub of innovation and creativity with over 700 foreign companies located across the North.

From Rhetoric to Reality

We have reached a point where we take for granted the sight of Martin McGuinness and Enda Kenny side by side at a 1916 Easter Rising commemoration. Images like this serve to remind us that actions, not words, have made the Good Friday Agreement the success it is today.  In more recent times, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II illustrated a relationship which extends far beyond photo opportunities and resembles an enduring effort to, as Mary McAleese put it, “acknowledge our past but not be bound by it”.

As a result of these efforts and more, Northern Ireland has become an example to the world. When in 2008, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told a packed United States Congress that “Ireland was at peace”, it sent a message from Ballygowan to Boston that a new island was forming.

The ”moral compass” of the North and the way in which we view the Troubles has changed. The murder of Ronan Kerr was condemned across all sections of politics on this island, but it resembled something far more significant: as news stories filtered out about this callous act, Ronan Kerr was not simply a casualty of an ongoing war, nor was he a policeman killed in the line of duty, he was a victim of an act of terrorism. What was once seen as just in the eyes of the Troubles is now deemed unacceptable.

Victims are no longer names on a list of the dead, they are people whose stories resemble a vision that people like John Hume, the late Mo Mowlam and George Mitchell knew could be realised when they sat in that stuffy, enclosed room 15 years ago. The moral divide in politics on this island has all but vanished. Fifteen years has seen the demoralisation of sectarianism and violence. Ian Paisley’s potent couplet; “no surrender” no longer resembles partisan rhetoric, but embodies the spirit of a people who strive for something better, a betterment that everyone can take pride in.

Duty to Care

The recent unrest on the streets of Belfast amidst the flag controversy was a timely reminder of the need to continue to build on the work of the last 15 years. Today, more peace walls exist in the North than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, a sign that the segregation of communities continues; while integrated schooling in the North has progressed,  it falls short of providing a climate where young people can effectively deal with difference; so-called ‘controlled explosions’ and the recovery of suspicious devices remain an all too frequent feature in news headlines.

Indeed, skeptics would argue that many of the challenges we faced then, we still face today. The climate however, is entirely different. There is a tangible appetite for progress and renewal in Northern Ireland. Many people place the burden of responsibility in maintaining peace across this island with politicians and to some degree, they are correct. But more important in the next 15 years of peace building in the North are regular people like you and me.

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A 1997 study entitled Cost of the Troubles estimated that over 6,800 people had experienced one of their immediate family members being killed as result of violence in the North. The will of these people to remember their loved ones will define what the next 15 years has in store for Northern Ireland. Simultaneously, society should never forget the past, the conflict it brought, and the people we lost. Events such as the one in Dublin which saw Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore read the names of those who lost their lives in the Troubles are an important part of the anniversary tradition.

Moving Forward

On that historic day in 1998, Tony Blair said that is was not a time for sound bites. Now, however, it is not a time for complacency. The recent decision of the British Government to reduce the North’s capital budget of £18 billion by 40 per cent is a worrying sign of a complacency that could easily undo the work of recent years.

Northern Ireland’s economy suffered serious neglect throughout the Troubles and now needs political investment to ensure the long-term viability of its economy and society. One of the most positive aspects of the island of Ireland which we see today is that there is so much potential still to be explored; this potential can only be realised by the power of both politics and people. Peace in Northern Ireland has not yet been fully realised. As we turn a corner in the peace process, it incumbent upon every person on this island to take responsibility for creating the real legacy of peace which will place the Troubles firmly in our past.

A conflict of over 20 years may certainly have defined the history of this island, but the decisions and actions we make today will shape its future.  In 15 more years, the Nokia certainly won’t be trendy and the Irish Punt may have returned, and there should be peace in Northern Ireland – real peace.

Ben English is member of the Washington Ireland Program and a George Mitchell Scholar at the University of Maine, USA. You can follow him on Twitter @Benglish9.

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