Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, politics in the North is stuck in a rut. Gerard Stewart suggests that the origins of this Long Good Friday of division are at the heart of the Agreement itself, arguing the time has arrived to go beyond its institutionalised sectarianism.
This year marked the 21st anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement (GFA); which provided for a democratically elected Assembly in the North of Ireland, organised on the basis of ‘power-sharing’ between unionism and nationalism. The principle architects of the Agreement—namely the main political parties in Ireland, backed by the British, Irish and US governments—enthusiastically insisted that this arrangement would protect the rights of citizens1, bringing an end to the brutal conflict that had preceded it, which claimed the lives of more than 3,500 people, leaving a profoundly damaging legacy in its wake.
The GFA was heralded as an unparalleled achievement—with Tony Blair feeling no less than the ‘hand of history’ on his shoulders as he beguiled a fawning media at its signing—and was celebrated across the world as a truly historic compromise between two seemingly intractable foes. Whilst this enthusiasm for establishment back-slapping was not shared by everyone, there was no doubt that a vast majority of people saw the Agreement as hope for a new start. Here, at last, was a chance for peace, progress and a future not defined by the violence of the past. With peace came the promise of a ‘peace dividend’ for working-class communities, who had disproportionately borne the brunt of The Troubles. On the ashes of the past, there were high hopes of a brighter future.
Twenty years on, and little of this enthusiasm remains. The NI Assembly—perched with grandiosity on the hills of the Stormont estate, on the outskirts of leafy suburban East Belfast—lies dormant, an empty vestige to a decade’s worth of scandals, protracted crises, and political failure. And the record is not a pretty one. Far from becoming synonymous with the protection of rights, Stormont has become a symbol of its denial; with abortion access, equal marriage, and language rights all having been blocked by the communal strictures of the Assembly. And a long litany of allegations of corruption have followed too; from the dodgy outsourcing of housing repairs to Red Sky, to the loss of hundreds of millions in the Renewable Heating Initiative, through to the gargantuan scale of the alleged corruption of billions of pounds in NAMA sales.
These, naturally, are the headline failures of post-GFA NI. But they say nothing of more than a decade of neo-liberalism—implemented with gusto by an executive led by both Sinn Féin and the DUP—that resulted in scores of school closures, private sector encroachment into the NHS, tens of thousands of public sector job losses, an agreement to significantly cut tax on corporations and the implementation of a ghastly and inhumane system of welfare reform that has drastically increased the need for foodbanks across the North.
Far from representing the beginning of a new dawn for the people of the North, the Agreement was the beginning of a Long Good Friday of political failure and division, with those at the bottom of society invariably losing out as a result. Despite the much vaunted claims of the likes of Blair and Clinton, ‘the New Northern Ireland’ has not proven to be the impeccable model of conflict resolution that they claimed. It is, by any serious measurement, a fundamentally flawed political entity. A failed state in other words.2
The Long Good Friday
What accounts for this Long Good Friday of failure? Crucially, I would argue, are the problems at the heart of the Agreement itself, and the structures that flow from it. As Brian Kelly put is: “the arrangements that have been in place for twenty years [have unsurprisingly led to a] deep cynicism about whether a new Assembly can produce anything beyond the seemingly permanent cycle of crisis and communal horse-trading that has marked its functioning ever since 1998.” 3 Kelly’s assessment may seem common sense now, but at the time of the signing of the Agreement, views like these got little hearing. On the back of the mid-1990s ceasefires, the GFA and every agreement thereafter, has promised to herald the emergence of ‘bread and butter’ politics, which would bring us beyond the sectarian spats between unionism and nationalism. Socialists, uniquely I think, took the opposite (and at the time unpopular) view; that a consociationalist assembly whereby elected representatives are compelled to align themselves as either nationalist or unionist—and where all resources would be divvied out on a communal basis—would only serve to embed and institutionalise the sectarian divide into the structures of the state. This arrangement would, therefore, exacerbate and normalise sectarianism not eradicate it. Those declining to designate—such as People Before Profit and the Green Party—are deemed “other”, and are consequently marginalised 4 in the Assembly structures. Indeed, we see an example of this in the current round of talks; where both parties are excluded notwithstanding their mandates to represent their voters. The democratic deficit couldn’t be any clearer.
Today, the far-sighted forecast by socialists that the Assembly would wind up a stalled political vehicle incapable of facilitating solutions for ordinary people is a prognosis very few now disagree with. 5 To paraphrase Bernadette McAliskey, those claiming bragging rights from 1998, might now reflect with greater humility on the price paid against the degree of progress made; a stagnant, sectarian and dysfunctional Stormont; an economy where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the continuing growth of sectarianism; and the denial of rights, including for victims of state repression. What we have is not progress, but a controlled and managed sectarian state, replete with communal corruption. 6
This, however, has not precluded seemingly benign and well-intentioned liberals from continuing to laud the GFA—as if our collective futures must be dictated by it forevermore. These individuals, and indeed parties, warn that without it we may return to sectarianism, ignoring altogether the obvious empirical evidence that a failed Stormont does that just as well. While today there exists a younger generation who sit outside the narrow confines of the ideological, social and cultural enclosure of establishment politics7, it hardly needs to be underscored that this growing, politically-progressive constituency persists despite the Good Friday framework not because of it. 8
Privatisation of Peace
There is another factor fuelling the Long Good Friday—the persistince of a deeply embedded inequality in Northern Irish society. This contrasts sharply with the official narrative of post-GFA NI, that the North is becoming a more equal society. Certainly the gap between Catholics and Protestants in general has narrowed significantly. But this obscures the fact that the North of Ireland remains one of the most unequal societies in Western Europe, with more than half of citizens here possessing less than £100 in savings at any one time.9
Since the GFA, the neoliberal model embraced by every establishment party in the North of Ireland has been held up as a model for ‘conflict transformation’ around the world, yet the discredited ‘trickle-down’ economics behind it has predictably failed to deliver the promised peace dividend into the hands of working class people.10 Instead, workers in the North of Ireland will spend their working life paying off exorbitant debt to private finance initiatives in return for struggling services, cut back to the bone since the 2008 crisis and ensuing austerity.11
Obscured behind the terminology of ‘public sector reform and restructuring’, the Long Good Friday has facilitated the increasing encroachment of the private sector into public sector services, giving the green light to the creeping casualisation and deunionisation of public sector employment, while also selling off local government services by contract to private companies. While the parties of cuts and privatisation parade facelifts and vanity projects—a leisure centre here, an annual community festival there—in exchange for votes on the doorsteps, the public office they preside over accelerates it’s recruitment of workers under agency and zero hour contracts, while keeping council services out of the reach of many low income constituents through hikes in access fees.
It is perhaps in the workplace were Sinn Féin and the DUP have expanded inequality the most. Freedom of Information (FOI) requests undertaken by Rebel has discovered that of the 3,000 permanent public sector jobs in the NI Civil Service cut by the DUP and Sinn Féin—as part of the Fresh Start Agreement signed in 2015—65% have since been refilled with agency staff; workers who are denied the right to a pension, the right to a redundancy package, the right to paid sick leave, the right to maternity, paternity, adoption and parental leave, and the right to challenge cases of unfair dismissal on grounds of their age, disability, race, religion or political belief etc. In a place where discrimination is rife, and has been a well documented problem, and where so much has been made about equality legislation, it is shocking that such unequal practices have been allowed through so easily. It is this, not the soundbites of politicians, that represents the reality of the Long Good Friday—where hard-won rights within the workplace are rapidly eroded in favour of precarious positions.
Failing the Poor
The clearest example of the absence of any commitment to equality in the North, was the cross-party acceptance of welfare cuts in exchange for the power to cut corporation tax. 12
In full knowledge of the devastation wrought on the working classes of England, Scotland and Wales by the implementation of the Welfare Reform Act (2012)—not to mention the greater reliance on welfare in the North for historic reasons, including the legacy of the Troubles—the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance voted in favour of allowing PIP, Universal Credit, and the Bedroom Tax into the North.
And it is this policy that might just be the worst result of the Long Good Friday politics of the North. Forced to run the gauntlet by adversarial assessors operating conscious cruelty, many people face the prospect of losing something and some will lose everything. Across the North of Ireland, 36,000 food bank packages were handed out in the last year alone13, while Advice NI and NICVA warn that around 34,000 households will see mass evictions on an unimaginable scale from 2020 onwards.14 Despite their frequent public spats, the DUP and Sinn Féin, with the support of Alliance, managed to find unity to undo the safety net the welfare state provides for people with disabilities, those suffering a mental illness or health crisis, and people in low paid employment.15
Dismissing years of pressure from a coalition of charities like Save the Children and Trade Unions such as UNISON, the long promised Childcare and Child Poverty strategies continue to be absent from party priority agendas, denying the needs of over 12,000 children and families. For those facing hardship and deprivation that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, the sycophancy of the political establishment’s self-congratulations of their ‘proud achievements’ to date, has only added insult to injury.
Today, talk has again resumed of a new arrangement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Are we about to move beyond the Long Good Friday that has dictated politics for the past twenty years? Almost certainly not. Indeed, leaked documents from the ongoing talks strongly suggest that little is set to change. Rather than a radical shift to overhaul the degeneracy of the Northern state, it can be said with some confidence that the best we can hope for is more of the same, save for superficial tinkering around the edges. Despite consistent and inherently inclusive, often vibrant, campaigns by Irish speakers—it remains unclear whether a fully-fledged, stand-alone, Irish Language Act that is not subject to Unionist veto is on the cards.
There is some talk of a private members bill for equal marriage, but no guarantee as yet that this meagre measure would even pass. Leaked documents from the February 2018 negotiations left those campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights bitterly disappointed—in clear indifference to the will of 70% of people here in support of same-sex marriage—with the right to equal marriage set to be referred back to the Assembly without any prospect of progress given the embedded petition of concern.
And what of abortion rights? As yet, nothing to confirm that the North is in fact next. Whilst there can be no doubting that the chief impediment to abortion rights in the North is the DUP, Sinn Féin’s historic flip-flopping on the issue does not give one cause for optimism. In a statelet where women in unwanted crisis pregnancies face life in prison for having an abortion and where 1,000+ women per year travel overseas for terminations denied to them at home—even in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality—no mention was or has been made on enhancing the rights of women across the North. Again—this despite the fact that almost 70% of people here agree that abortion should not be a crime—with even the most liberal of political forces refusing to demand the liberalisation of abortion law as a prerequisite for restoring the Stormont executive. As one feminist activist put it, the women’s movement have only been invited to come and show their support for the current talks process, but explicitly asked to leave their ‘issues’ at the door.
Sinn Féin, have belatedly added an ‘anti-poverty strategy’ to their demands in the talks. What exactly this entails, is not entirely clear. But it is almost certainly a response to the growth and pressure of a rising People Before Profit to their left in the most recent local elections.
Beyond Good Friday
How, then, do we escape this entrapment? Firstly, it appears to be me that socialists, progressives and anyone interested in a better future should consider going beyond the politics of the GFA. We cannot be forever beholden to a set of arrangements agreed by politicians over two decades ago. The Good Friday Agreement is neither holy writ, nor is it political blasphemy to critique its obvious inoperability16, and the calls to refrain from critiquing the framework which flowed from Good Friday17 and to instead support the calls for government for the sake of government are an impediment to progressive politics. It is fool’s gold on the part of northern liberals to dig their defences around what is, in the final analysis, the blueprint of a sectarian statelet. Whatever one thinks about the original motivations of the GFA twenty years ago, surely we can all at least agree that the Good Friday framework should be better thought of as a ‘generational compromise’ that has now long past its expiry date. Surely the time has arrived for more radical, bolder vision of anti-sectarianism. 18
The GFA did not lay the basis for ‘normal’ politics to emerge, still less left and socialist politics. The structures of the GFA is an impediment to the emergence of a left-right political axis.19 It follows, therefore, that the development of such politics will not come from strengthening the GFA, or by ‘making Northern Ireland work.’ Certainly, the left can use whatever platform is afforded to us to push socialist politics. That is as much the case for the NI Assembly, as it was with the Tsarist Duma a century ago. Socialists, as someone once said, must be prepared to stand on any dung heap to make their case. But without a socialist struggle from below and coordinated working class militancy against neoliberalism and against the resurgence of sectarianism, reactionary elements will continue to grow at our expense.20 In the period ahead, now more than ever, every effort must be made to draw parallels in the socioeconomic circumstances of working class people on both sides of the sectarian divide by stressing the continuing disparities between rich and poor, without giving an inch to sectarian forces who want to divide both communities. If this can be combined, even in the most embryonic way, with the growing signs of unity among progressives in the movements for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, Irish language rights, migrant’s rights, and so on—then maybe we can finally escape the strictures of the past.
Now is not the time to resurrect agreements from twenty years past. Now is the time for boldness, for radical action, for class politics. The Long Good Friday will not last forever.
- Good Friday Agreement, page 7
- As Northern Ireland’s centenary rapidly approaches, so too does a moment of existential truth – iNews
- The Return of the National Question”, Brian Kelly
- The left should think more carefully before defending the Good Friday Agreement – Robin Wilson, Open Democracy.
- 20 years on: The Good Friday Agreement is dead – Ben Curry, Socialist Appeal
- Platform: Bernadette McAliskey, Irish News
- The Good Friday Agreement belongs to the people, not the politicians –Peter Shirlow, The Conversation
- 20 years on: The Good Friday Agreement is dead – Ben Curry, Socialist Appeal
- Millions have less than £100 in savings, study finds – Brian Milligan, BBC News
- Neoliberal Belfast: Disaster ahead? – Brian Kelly, Irish Marxist Review
- 20 years on: The Good Friday Agreement is dead – Ben Curry, Socialist Appeal
- Corporation tax depends on welfare reform – BBC News
- 36,000 food bank packages handed out in a year in Northern Ireland – Belfast Telegraph
- Welfare cliff-edge’ of child poverty, food banks and mass evictions ‘will hit north in a year‘ – Irish News
- Sinn Féin, DUP & Welfare Cuts – Michael Collins, Rebel News
- The Belfast Agreement is flawed but not in the way Brexiteers think – Fintan O’Toole, Irish News
- Bertie Ahern: Talk of moving beyond Stormont is infantile – Sam McBride, Newsletter
- Goodbye to Good Friday? – Maev McDaid and Brian Christopher, Pluto Press
- The left should think more carefully before defending the Good Friday Agreement – Robin Wilson, Open Democracy
- The Road Less Travelled: Lessons from Gerry Carroll’s Election Victory – Séan Mitchell, Irish Marxist Review