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The Good Friday Agreement will not be revived by repeating old debates

(Alamy)

5 min read

A certain sickly sentimentality has already descended on the commemoration of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

There is a need for a more realistic perspective which reflects the actual emotional and political context of the time. In particular, the key to David Trimble’s success lay in his willingness to accept that a pragmatic model of north/south cooperation was possible.

Trimble’s achievement is simple: he negotiated the deal and made the template stick

In the last week of the talks, Bertie Ahern, the then-Irish Taoiseach, substantially modified Dublin’s demands to achieve this outcome. In David Trimble’s final public appearance in 2022 at his old university, I saw him embrace Bertie Ahern and say warmly that Bertie had given him the strength to do the rest of the devolution deal with the SDLP. It has to be said, however, in the interests of historical truth, that Tony Blair also placed considerable pressure on Bertie Ahern to soften the Irish negotiating position. Also, that when one of David’s cleverest young Spads wished to refer to this Blairite moment in a magazine article, David was infuriated – because he felt so grateful to Ahern, he did not wish anything to tarnish this triumph.

Trimble’s achievement is simple: he negotiated the deal and made the template stick despite the IRA’s failure to decommission their arms. Remember both governments insisted on the day of the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 that the IRA had to decommission as the price of entering talks. This then became that they should decommission during talks. Ian Paisley predicted immediately that the IRA would get into talks without decommissioning; he was right, but not even he foresaw that the IRA retained the right to wage war with their fellow Irishmen for 14 years.

My personal memories of the Thursday night and early morning of Good Friday are touched by melancholy. I was broadcasting most of the evening from the BBC in Belfast. I recall clearly the hope still being expressed by those in contact with Sinn Fein that the pan-nationalist front would hold and that the SDLP would not strike a deal with the Ulster Unionists which Sinn Fein could not endorse. Arriving at midnight in the Stormont building where the talks were taking place, I found that, on the contrary, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists had struck a firm deal and Sinn Fein at the level of constitutional structures had been ignored.

The friendship between the two parties was warmer and more affectionate that ever I had seen it – both confidently expected the electorate to reward them at the polls. It was not to be. First, the SDLP and then the Ulster Unionists lost their leadership position in their communities. The origins of this process began in the early hours of Good Friday morning, when, in compensation for Sinn Fein’s negotiating defeat on the new political institutions, the UK government moved fast on prisoner releases and slow on IRA decommissioning.

The politics of the gun remained in play, long after the gun’s widespread use in Northern Irish society. On these conditions, Gerry Adams rapidly pushed Sinn Fein to, within seven weeks, abandon its traditional political ideology. Adams thus opened the door for Sinn Fein to become the largest party in an Assembly whose very existence they had opposed during the talks. It was a brilliant piece of opportunism – obviously not in making progress towards a united Ireland. This prospect was entirely becalmed before Brexit and not that much advanced even since Brexit, but in boosting Sinn Fein’s place in the ethnic rivalry which lies at the heart of Northern Irish politics.

Twenty-five years later, the institutions of the GFA and some of the old debates are repeating themselves. In particular, the Irish government has played up the existence of an island economy as opposed to their 1998 acknowledgement of two economies on the island. There has been in, for example, agrifood a development of something which might be described as an island economy. But the predominant reality of two economies remains unchanged. Lord Trimble’s last public act was to provide an introduction for Dr Graham Gudgin’s Policy Exchange text carefully demonstrating this point. 

Nevertheless, two international agreements, the December 2017 Joint UK/EU Report and the Withdrawal Agreement of 2019, bear the heavy imprint of this ideological concept linked to a profound exaggeration of the active EU role in North/South cooperation. The Windsor Agreement marked a break with these two concepts as the related white paper makes crystal clear. But anti-GFA unionism has been given a new lease of life; their old argument against the GFA – that it created an island economy leading to political unity – fell by the wayside of reality. The task for those who want to see the GFA revival is to show that fears on this point are as exaggerated now as they were a quarter of a century ago.

 

Lord Bew, crossbench peer and professor of Irish politics

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