I see that The Irish Times has used up the best part of a Canadian boreal forest today to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. A strange decision since the last time I looked the good old GFA was heading to the same resting place as the Sunningdale deal, Brian Faulkner’s Green Paper, Jim Prior’s rolling Assembly, Enoch Powell’s integration fantasy and Terence O’Neill’s crossroads speech.
Still, the Times is big on anniversaries, especially those which held out hope of finally sorting out the Northern mess, albeit briefly, and if there is a touch of whistling past the graveyard in today’s coverage, it is understandable.
There was a piece missing however. That’s the story which says that even if the GFA is headed to the ‘failed initiatives plot’ in whichever cemetery is deemed most appropriate – Milltown, Glasnevin or Roselawn – it doesn’t really matter. The Agreement did its job.
The job was to bring the IRA’s violence to an end in a way which made it next to impossible to revive. That has happened. The factory of grievances which fueled the IRA has been mostly dismantled and scores of IRA veterans these days spend their summer hols in Portuguese villas of which they are the nominal owners, or eat nice dinners in mysteriously acquired hotels – courtesy of the good old Northern Bank. Meanwhile tons of Libyan weapons and explosives are now no more.
Getting the two most antagonistic parties to share power up at Stormont on a long term basis would have been seen as a bonus but again there is a plus side to the collapse. The arrangement was intrinsically unnatural and thereby unstable; and it set sectarianism in concrete. How else was it possible in a place where the health service is a disgrace for an argument over the Irish language to dominate politics?
So the Good Friday Agreement achieved what it was invented for, to kill off the Provisional IRA and allow their Loyalist counterparts to retire to a life of officially tolerated graft and villainy. So wipe your eyes.
It is my guess that this is what the GFA will be remembered for but it is not what it should be.
What makes the GFA unique, or rather the peace process that underlay it, was that it was almost entirely a top-down operation in the two parties which emerged as top dogs when the dust finally settled. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP led from the top while misleading, i.e. lying to, their supporters.
And so the Shinner leadership told their people there would never be a ceasefire, or there would never be decommissioning while the DUP told their people they would never, ever go into government with SF.
They both dissembled and they both got away with it. I am not sure whether this says more about the respective leaderships or their followers. But either way it is what marks out the GFA as a really special deal.