As Northern Ireland celebrates 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict, two stark images highlight how far the region still has to go to meet the deal’s ambition.

One is Stormont, which the April 10, 1998 agreement established as the seat of decentralized government for the region, with unionist and nationalist politicians sharing power. The executive collapsed almost a year ago followed by Brexit and the Stormont assembly chamber it stays empty.

The other is a desolate bog in County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, just south of the border. Here, orange diggers and workers in high visibility coats have resumed their search for the remains of Columba McVeigh, a teenager kidnapped and killed by the Irish Republican Army in 1975, during their 30-year war against the British state.

The empty Assembly Chamber in the Stormont Parliament Building
The empty Assembly Chamber in the Stormont Parliament Building © PA

These scenes summarize two of the unresolved problems of the Good Friday Agreement: political instability in North Irelandand the region’s inability to fully overcome its violent past.

Despite achieving peace and reconciliation to a degree unthinkable at the height of the so-called Troubles, which also involved loyal paramilitaries struggling to keep Northern Ireland within the UK, the deal has a lot of unfinished business.

“I’m happy with where we are now, and I think opportunities have been missed, but that’s not a contradiction,” said Monica McWilliams, who as co-founder of the cross-community Coalition of Women signed the Good Friday Agreement along with with the other political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as the governments of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States.

“It just shows you how long it takes to implement a peace agreement, even one that is working.”

Monica McWilliams, co-founder of the Cross-Community Coalition of Women
Monica McWilliams, co-founder of the Cross-Community Women’s Coalition © Niall Carson/PA

The agreement, the culmination of a long and painful negotiation marked by mistrust and fear between nationalists and unionists, seemed in doubt until the end.

Tricky issues such as the release of prisoners before the closure of paramilitary weapons led Jeffrey Donaldson, then a negotiator for the Ulster Unionist party, to withdraw hours before the agreement was signed.

Donaldson then defected to the Democratic Unionist party, which overtook the UUP as the main political force in favor of keeping Northern Ireland in the UK.

As leader of the DUP, Donaldson last year plunged Stormont into limbo by boycotting the assembly and executive after an election first won by the nationalist Sinn Féin party, which wants a united Ireland. Donaldson said the DUP would not be involved in devolved government until there were sweeping changes to post-Brexit trade rules that he said threatened Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Ulster Unionist party leader at the time, David Trimble with Jeffrey Donaldson, then negotiator for the party until he left and joined the DUP.
David Trimble, left, leader of the Ulster Unionist party at the time, with Jeffrey Donaldson, then the party’s negotiator until he left and joined the DUP © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The Good Friday agreement was based on “parity of esteem” between the two main communities. But by giving the largest nationalist and unionist parties a veto over the running of the region’s government, it cooked up a fragility that is one of the biggest problems with Stormont a quarter century later.

In fact, power sharing has been frozen for about 40 percent of the time since its inception. The most recent collapse before this came when Sinn Féin ousted the executive from 2017 to 2020 after a scandal over a failed energy plan.

The Alliance party, a third rising force in Northern Ireland politics that does not identify as unionist or nationalist, is calling for urgent power-sharing reforms to reflect how society has changed since the Good Friday Agreement.

Bertie Ahern, who as an Irish taoiseach signed the agreement in 1998, told the Financial Times that the agreement must be reformed and that parties in the region “need to come to their senses” and find a mechanism to “stop this stop-start business”. .

“I think there should be a review, and in a short time, for that matter,” he said, suggesting that a committee of the parties, possibly with an independent chair, should look at the proposals in the coming months.

In 1998, the idea that Sinn Féin would overtake the Unionists to become the largest party in Northern Ireland or that the region would have more Catholics than Protestants seemed fanciful.

The Good Friday Agreement allowed people to identify themselves as British, Irish or both, and enshrined the principle of consent: that there could be no change to Northern Ireland’s status unless the majority of people wanted it to.

But that has allowed everyday concerns about public services to be held hostage to identity politics, which Brexit exacerbated. Northern Ireland rejected Brexit in the 2016 referendum, when Sinn Féin urged voters to stay in the EU and the DUP backed leaving.

“The problem with Brexit is that it put the poison of identity back into politics, so it is no longer about health or education. . . but about identity,” said Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, the UK prime minister who signed the Good Friday Agreement.

Opinion polls show public patience with a stop-go Stormont is now running out while Northern Ireland grapples with a huge hole in its finances and the prospect of cuts in public services.

Meanwhile, the region continues to struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the conflict that ended the Good Friday Agreement.

Sandra Peake, executive director of the Wave Trauma Center, which helps those bereaved by problems, said the search for McVeigh in Monaghan was a reminder of how many have gone without justice.

He added that a controversial piece of UK legislation that sought to draw a line in the conflict, in part by halting further investigations into crime on the grounds that too much time has passed, showed that “they are putting the needs of the perpetrator first. . . to the needs of its victims and survivors”.

Sandra Peake of the Wave Trauma Centre, left, with Dympna Kerr, the sister of Columba McVeigh
Sandra Peake from the Wave Trauma Centre, left, with Dympna Kerr, the sister of Columba McVeigh at the Bragan bog near Emyvale in Co Monaghan © Liam McBurney/PA

Emma DeSouza, who created the Northern Ireland Civic Initiative, a non-governmental organization designed to help shape policy around reconciliation, said some commitments in the Good Friday Agreement, such as a bill of rights for the region , were never implemented due to “political deviation”. .

The region’s enduring divisions meant that “an entire generation has had peace but no peace dividend,” added DeSouza, who is organizing a “Say Yes Again” rally next month to mark the anniversary of the May referendums. 1998 in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Ireland which backed the deal.

“The 25th anniversary is a really good time. . . asking ourselves the hard questions of what we can do to move this forward, because surely this can’t be the best we can do.” she said.

Powell was more optimistic. “The point about peace agreements is that they stop the war, they don’t solve all the other problems,” he said, adding that a new brexit deal between the UK and the EU that revised Northern Ireland’s trade agreements had the potential to deliver a “fantastic economic future”.

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