Good Friday Agreement "a passage over a threshold"
Good Friday Agreement "a passage over a threshold"
This piece is based on an address made recently by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the 40-member Council of Europe.
The title Good Friday Agreement gives a particularly good impression of what was achieved in Belfast last month. While recalling the date of the Agreement, it also suggests a form of redemption, a passage over a threshold which, indeed, is what this process is all about.
I have been a politician for my working life, and yet being a part of these negotiations was a revelation. We were engaged in a project of very great ambition - the search for a political accommodation to end thirty years of conflict that had killed over 3,000 people. Indeed, many would argue that the roots of the conflict are to be measured in centuries rather than decades. The challenge we faced was two-fold. We needed to reach a shared understanding on the issues at the heart of the conflict. And, we needed to create structures for partnership to replace division.
The tyranny of history argued against the success of our efforts, but those involved shared a determination to defy the dismal logic of the pessimists. The Talks were driven forward by a strong sense that a meeting of hearts and minds between unionism and nationalism could be achieved. Above all, we knew that violence and exclusion must end, that politics must work, and that this generation could not pass on the mess to another.
The Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of more than two decades of ever-closer partnership between the Irish and British Governments. The shared understandings built up on the core issues were essential to the ultimate success of the Talks. The richness of the outcome owes much to the fact that it draws on the cumulative wisdom of a generation of politics on our island.
Our evolving analysis identified a number of elements indispensable to the new beginning we sought. Firstly, we needed a balanced constitutional accommodation on the whole issue of Northern Ireland's status. Secondly, institutions and structures were required to reflect the three central relationships - within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Ireland and Britain. Thirdly, arrangements had to be devised to ensure equality, partnership and parity of respect for both main traditions.
On the constitutional question, the Agreement ensures that the people of Northern Ireland themselves will decide their future. The Agreement recognises the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people. If in the future a majority were to favour a united Ireland, arrangements will be made to give effect to that wish. Both Governments have committed themselves to incorporating this new understanding into their respective constitutional frameworks. In doing so, we have changed the centre of gravity from land to people. I believe that this is an imaginative approach, which represents a modernisation of our basic values, and not in any sense a rejection of them.
As regards institutions and structures, the Agreement sets out extensive new arrangements across the board. In all cases, the entire focus is on partnership so that people from both traditions can work together, on a basis of equality and mutual respect, in common pursuit of the wider good. Within Northern Ireland, an elaborate new process is envisaged, enabling both major traditions to share power and responsibility, but with important checks and balances to provide essential safeguards.
On the island of Ireland, the new arrangements and institutions are intended to facilitate North and South in working together by agreement on important matters of common interest. The purpose is to develop, in a new and creative way, the very real potential for common action that exists on the island. New institutional links are envisaged between Ireland and Britain to bring together all of the Administrations in the two islands, including those in Scotland and Wales, when established. The two sovereign Governments will continue their close partnership which is to be given renewed institutional expression through a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
The central importance of the "equality agenda" is recognised with a major section on human rights protection, and social, economic and cultural issues, including the Irish language. The European Convention on Human Rights is embedded in the Agreement as the guiding document for a new enhanced rights regime in Northern Ireland, with a commitment to an equivalent level of protection in the Republic. Institutions and mechanisms are envisaged to give effect to the principle of equality at all levels. Since the domination of one tradition over the other is at the core of the conflict, the equality provisions have a crucial role in reinforcing a lasting settlement.
While cautious about drawing very specific lessons, there are some essential elements in our process that may be seen as common to all conflict resolution. The first is that there are few barriers that cannot be transformed into thresholds. There are few thresholds that cannot be crossed given sufficient encouragement and assurance.
Secondly, if like Northern Ireland the problem seems intractable, then look carefully at its context. We did this over a number of decades by moving the problem out of the narrow ground of Northern Ireland onto the wider plain of Anglo-Irish relations, what we called the ‘totality of relationships'.
What we were attempting to do here was to grapple with the problem of double majority/double minority. Each side in Northern Ireland sees itself simultaneously as part of a minority and a majority. Nationalists, while a minority in Northern Ireland, are very conscious of their membership of a wider Irish majority. Unionists, on the other hand, while a majority within Northern Ireland, are deeply conscious - and fearful - of the reality that they are a minority on the island of Ireland. This was a fundamental problem that had to be addressed. I am convinced that the Agreement has created a new political "space" with the necessary checks and balances for nationalism and unionism to co-exist and build a mutually-rewarding new partnership.
A further lesson to be drawn is never to underestimate the power of politics to transform human relations. Relationships that may have soured because of violence, conflict and exclusion, can be transformed over time and with patience, through politics. Conflict is about problems, but politics is about solutions.
It may be something of a cliché but it is true that those involved in conflict must want to see change for the better. No matter how bleak the prospects for agreement became, the one sustaining factor in the Northern talks was that key players stayed at the table because they believed the prize of agreement was worth the political risk and effort involved.
The Good Friday Agreement also profited from the goodwill expressed by those not directly involved in the conflict. These included the independent Chairmen, President Clinton, and our partners in the European Union. They were unremitting in their encouragement for, and faith in, the process, and they formed a bulwark against failure. The Agreement is part of the good harvest we have reaped because of what so many in the past have sowed.
Whatever the conflict, no matter how enduring seems the integrity of the struggle, the seeds of goodwill, humanity and fundamental principles will find a way to flourish and bear fruit. Ultimately, that is the real lesson of the Good Friday Agreement for all peace makers.