A celebration at Hillsborough Castle reminded me how compromise will secure peace in Northern Ireland – and beyond
On the tours of Parliament that I am sometimes able to give my constituents, I often start by reminding visiting Moorlanders, as they stop to take in the stark grandeur of Westminster Hall, that the origin of the word ‘Parliament’ is the Norman French ‘parler’, to speak, and that debate is the foundation of our democracy.
Without earnest debate between diehard opponents – even enemies – we would not have seen the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) signed 25 years ago this month. That agreement must be the most powerful example in our lifetimes of Abraham Lincoln’s words: “the ballot is stronger than the bullet”.
The words of less accomplished politicians than Lincoln are all too often an easy target for waspish sketch-writers and less refined keyboard warriors on social media. Reasonably enough since the human beings who seek election inevitably make mistakes.
But we are in danger today of giving up debating our differences in favour of shouting opinions and creating division not reaching accord. I do not see how the BGFA could be signed today with a feverish 24-hour media and when populist views are addressed only to like-minded followers on Twitter.
We must never forget that politics and debate can change lives for the better. Politicians who are brave – who are prepared to make difficult and, perhaps, unpopular decisions, to listen to their opponents and to compromise – will always make a difference.
Last week I was honoured to be a guest at a gala dinner full of such people at Hillsborough Castle (a place I was lucky to call another home in 2018 and 2019), the perfect venue for a celebration of the anniversary of the agreement and the peace it created.
The BGFA isn’t perfect – no negotiated settlement can be. Power sharing has failed to deliver functioning devolved government for too many of the 25 years. East-West and North-South relations are not always as seamless as they should be. Northern Ireland politics are still defined by sectarian divide rather than the right/left policies enjoyed elsewhere. But the evening demonstrated that the close friendships and ties of the people of the British Isles are tight and the determination to support the people of Northern Ireland is as strong as ever.
Across the world we need more true leadership and less populism, more understanding and less division
Leo Varadkar, Irish Taoiseach said, “It was a phenomenal occasion. I don’t think I have ever been in a room with five serving or former PMs, three serving or former Taoisigh, a former US President and the President of the European Council and it all happened a short drive from Belfast. I think it helped to strengthen the idea that the BGFA is a shared achievement for the United Kingdom and Ireland, partnered with the United States and EU.” But he added, “The speeches reminded us of the need to protect what has been achieved and that we still have to fulfil the promise of the agreement.”
I sat next to Boris Johnson at the dinner. He told me the evening was “an affirmation of the power of negotiation and compromise. And a brilliant idea to fill the room with so many young people from all over Northern Ireland.
“Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams – their locks are silver or snowy white these days. They feel the hand of biology on their shoulder. The young people there represented the future – and their mood was of overwhelming confidence in the future of Northern Ireland. And that is the greatest success of the BGFA.”
At our recent British Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast, many of the architects of the original agreement agreed that getting it done today would be incredibly difficult. Across the world we need more true leadership and less populism, more understanding and less division, more kindness and less conflict. Respectful debate is the essential starting point.
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