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A Grassroots look at the Belfast Agreement 25 years on | John Hoey

The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement provided a unique opportunity for those of us not involved in politics, government, or armed services, - 'civil society' - to play a part at a plot point in the story of Ireland and Britain.

Having been enthused as a child by the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, I lost interest as the conflict developed. Like many in Northern Ireland not directly affected by the 'troubles' I switched off to the ever darker misery, particularly to the absurdly vigorous and relentless IRA 'long war'.

John Major's and Albert Reynolds' Downing Street declaration of 1993 switched me on again. Those ambiguous British Government words “no selfish strategic or economic interest” suggested some productive change might be afoot. Looked at 30 years thence they seem to herald abandonment.

But onwards to Good Friday 1998. I was surprised that Unionists had agreed to a settlement containing within it the means of terminating Northern Ireland's existence. On the other hand, the GFA appeared to recognise – for the first time to my knowledge – difference of national identity at the heart of the conflict. The accord spoke eloquently of “Irish or British, or both”. Equality of identity pervaded the text and that seemed fair and equitable.

What also surprised me was the apparent failure of unionism to comprehend that an all island 'yes' vote in the subsequent referendum would correct the perceived injustice of the 1918 general election - after which the then Sinn Fein were denied

their overwhelming mandate. Voting 'Yes' in the referendum inevitably would delegitimate physical force Republicanism. An armed insurgency can't persist on its own. It needs the on-going voluntary support of a significant portion of a populace.

Enthused again by local affairs I took time off to volunteer with the YES campaign. This improvised group didn't seem to have much in the way of cash resource but it did have bountiful quantities of pro bono aid from multiple sources. I researched opponents of the agreement, promoted articles to print media, leafletted, canvassed, toured – all the usual razzmatazz of a political campaign. Never comfortable with the label 'Unionist' – I identify as 'British' – I gravitated towards David Trimble's intellectual grouping. Though I found it easier working with the broader based, emotionally mature Northern Ireland Womens Coalition whose influence on the creation of the GFA is often under estimated.

Reflecting on the period from 1998 several things occur to me:

  1. Fixation with decommissioning. It was always clear to me that the best mechanism for decommissioning weaponry was that promoted by the late David Ervine – rust.

  2. Prisoner releases. Unpalatable as it was to see killers set free it was the price of settlement. They didn't see themselves as killers. They saw themselves as soldiers or defenders – just like the Crown Services.

  3. Funding of political movements. The absence of clarity on the source and application of financial resources I see as the most insidiously damaging consequence of the GFA. Petty and not so petty corruption is tolerated rather than discouraged, facilitating service by instead of service for the electorate. 4) Brexit. I'm fully in favour of constructive, collaborative, co-operative arrangements between countries. But I also rather like the nation state construct so I voted for Brexit. Needless to say I have not got the Brexit I had hoped for.

And so to October 2019 when Boris Johnston met Leo Varadkar and announced the Northern Ireland Protocol. My heart sank. For I knew then that the Good Friday Agreement had commenced its decline to irrelevance. Its co-sponsors – the United Kingdom and Ireland – had chosen to preference minor practical concerns about a tiny volume of cross-frontier trade on the outer fringes of Europe over and above the carefully balanced settlement that had promised consent, equality, and an end to using violence as a political tool. Of course we all soon realised the Protocol has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with progress towards the Irish nationalist vision of a 'New Ireland'.

Pre Brexit Northern Ireland had an invisible frontier and a soft border with the

Republic of Ireland. Now, in addition, we have a permanent hard border with Great Britain – cleverly hidden behind the curtilages of restricted access port facilities and arcane online bureaucracy. It's a peculiar irony that in March 2023, 515 Westminster MPs did more for Irish Republicanism in 100 minutes than the IRA achieved in 100 years. By restricting and obfuscating that basic human right to trade and exchange with one's peers they kicked down the single biggest hurdle to a 'united Ireland'.

So much for the GFA's laudable “right to equal opportunity in all social and economic affairs”.

The notion that this situation can be changed in a future renegotiation of the UK / EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement seems to be for the birds. The major players in the European Union are ex-colonial powers so I can't see their being greatly concerned about the rights or feelings of minority groups in far away places like Northern Ireland. They certainly didn't seem concerned about Russian speakers in Estonia or Swedish speakers in Finland. Furthermore, Sinn Fein quite possibly may be the Irish government by that stage. And be assured, their strategists have been gaming Brexit scenarios ever since 2016 while the rest of us were dozing.

And of the next 25 years? I've lived the majority of my life without executive or legislative branches of government in Stormont and I can't immediately see the difference. My haunch is that most people are inclined to follow Bill Clinton's aphorism “It's the economy stupid” when they compare Ireland and Northern Ireland. Sadly, I can see myself ending my days smuggling my garden seeds from England and being British in name only.

1 Comment


A Grassroots look at the Belfast Agreement 25 years on | John Hoey

My Reply: While we are looking at 'Grassroots' views on the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement 25 years on, Mr Hoey - let me take this opportunity to make MY 'grassroots' views on that despicable and devious Agreement which the imported 'great and good', joining with local political fools and incompetents have been sycophantically lauding and applauding on our television and radio media over the past month.

The one aspect missing from the past month's festival of political deception - has been any hint of anti-GFA opinion, view, or opposition. So, here goes, Sir.

First of all let me openly and forthrightly ask YOU the question that…


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