Feargal Cochrane

There are a lot of anniversaries around at the moment and there are more to come over the next few years as Northern Ireland gears up for its centenary ‘celebrations’ in 2021.In the spirt of the times I have a commemoration of my own to mark this year. On 18 August 1998, I ‘emigrated’ to Britain from Northern Ireland for a university lecturing post, thinking that I would be back home in 6 months. Months turned into years of course and I’m facing my 20th anniversary away from Northern Ireland despite regular return visits for work, family visits and to top up the accent.

One of the last things I did before leaving in 1998 was to vote Yes in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on 22 May 1998. I did so without reservation, as I was fully convinced that we had finally cracked a violent conflict that had defined my life but would not now blight the experience of the younger generation. I still remember feeling that I was doing something of seismic importance that day and that I could get on the boat to England with a clear conscience that Northern Ireland had finally come to terms with its political divisions and violent past. I was wrong, of course, about the difficulties that would beset the implementation of the GFA. It has been messy, it has been (and is) a dysfunctional political system. It is also chronically unstable, as is blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to look. 

But despite all its flaws, the GFA took a lot of the heat out of the political argument. Not by forcing one community to submit to the other –but by allowing people to differ about the final constitutional destination while getting on with the journey of living their lives. This was called ‘constructive ambiguity’ in diplomatic-speak and was seen by many observers as an exercise in political statecraft. Was Northern Ireland British –or was it Irish? The GFA allowed us to believe that it could be either –or neither. This was both its genius –and its key weakness, as it could only hold together for so long as the unionist and nationalist communities agreed to move beyond the old binary zero-sum identity equation into a more complex form of political arithmetic based on ‘parity of esteem’ for the two main ethnonational traditions. 

So ‘what did the GFA ever do for us’? On the credit side of the balance sheet, it provided evidence that the main political parties were capable of constructing a political settlement that could provide local governance for the people of Northern Ireland. The GFA also helped to move Northern Ireland beyond political violence and normalised life to a great extent. Thus the region was increasingly demilitarised, the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary organisations eventually destroyed their weapons. The police force was civilianised and radically reformed and after that Sinn Fein signed up to supporting the new Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system. They also accepted the ‘consent principle’ at the heart of the peace process, which de facto recognised Northern Ireland’s political legitimacy. The GFA also provided incentives for the DUP to move from ‘spoilers’ outside the new political institutions, to skilful insiders and electoral beneficiaries of the system after 2007.

On a wider level- the GFA encouraged external investment and economic regeneration and while the institutions were frequently under strain, their very existence provided a sense of joint project for many of those involved in operating them. The political institutions that were built, very quickly shifted the political axis from London to Belfast and the media followed suit –as the daily news diet moved from security concerns, to political accountability of ministers at Stormont, the spending of public money and policy priorities relating to the state of the health and education sectors.

However, the debit side of the balance sheet is equally long. The GFA has simply failed to deliver in key areas. It has obviously not provided institutional stability. More worryingly, it has proved incapable of making a difference to people’s lives or addressed the problems that they face. The deep structural divisions in housing, education and culture remain undimmed despite the 20+ years of relative peace in Northern Ireland. This is an indictment of the GFA, the main political parties that have populated the political institutions spawned by it –and also asks some awkward questions of the broader electorate. We basically do not trust each other now any more than we did 20 years ago. It’s easy to be wise in hindsight of course –and it is also easy to blame our politicians while we re-elect them on manifestos that tie them to existing positions and make it more difficult for them to move away from these towards compromise or progressive change.

So the GFA will have its 20th Birthday on 10 April –and it is two cheers from me. A few months later, on 18th August I’ll commemorate my 20th anniversary of moving to Britain –though with less razzamatazz.  I’ll have a pint of Smithwicks, get out my Stiff Little Fingers ‘tapes’ and play Alternative Ulster until the neighbours complain.

I hope the 20th Anniversary of the GFA on 10 April is followed by many more anniversaries in the years ahead. However if it is to remain a birthday bash rather than a wake, then the political institutions inspired by the GFA need to move beyond mere political accommodation of rival ethnonational groups. They will have to move towards an accommodation+ model, where negative voting is replaced by positive-sum outcomes and where interests are regarded as being interdependent rather than distinct. It will have to convert the political rhetoric into policies that change people’s lives for the better.

So if you are raising a toast to the GFA on 10th April, perhaps talk to your nearest and dearest about what it has achieved so far –rather than what it has failed to do. ​


Feargal Cochrane is Professor of International Conflict Analysis and the Director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre (CARC), in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent.


Image: Paul Murphy