The Good Friday Agreement – 20 years on

11 Apr

It is easy to be cynical twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement was reached. There has been very limited reconciliation between the two main communities. The power-sharing government collapsed over a year ago and there is little sign of it being restored. The reason for its collapse is that the two main political parties – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists – loathe each other with an intensity few outsiders could imagine. Important parts of the Good Friday Agreement – like those on dealing with the past and a consultative role for civil society – have been ignored.

A list of disappointments could go on but the Good Friday Agreement is to be celebrated for one fundamental fact: there are hundreds of people walking around today who otherwise would have lost their lives in violence. Add to this the thousands who would have been incarcerated had things continued, and the thousands who would have been injured, and the human advantage of the Agreement is very clear.

Certainly the backslapping by celebrity politicians is grating. But is worth recognising that a number of politicians took risks to make the Belfast Agreement happen. Tony Blair – a man whose stock is low because of the Iraq debacle – invested enormous political capital into the Northern Ireland peace process. He did not have to do this. Bill Clinton made things happen. He cajoled, persuaded, enticed and quite possibly bullied. It worked. Bertie Ahern used the gift of the gab. George Mitchell had the patience of an army of saints. And lots of other politicians, civil servants and civil society played their part too. It worked.

Commentary on the failings of the Good Friday Agreement could go on forever. But many lives have been saved. Many more have been improved. For that we should be grateful.

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