Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

23 February 2023 Edition

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We have lived in the Good Friday Agreement era

Mícheál Mac Donncha argues that despite the challenges to the Good Friday Agreement over 25 years, it has opened the potential for a path way to a United Ireland.

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An era is defined as a long and distinct period of history. Three such eras can be clearly discerned in the history of the Six-County state: from its foundation in 1921 to the outbreak of armed conflict in 1969; the years of armed conflict up to the mid-1990s; and the 25 years since the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The last 25 years have been defined politically by that Agreement, the efforts to implement it, the progress, the successes and failures, the stalling, the advances. Underlying all are the principles of equality and inclusivity enshrined in the Agreement. While the Assembly and the Executive have stumbled from crisis to crisis the peace has held firm. Peace and the principles of the Agreement reached on 10 April 1998 have become deeply embedded in the social, economic and cultural life of Ireland.

That this is so, in spite of all efforts to thwart the implementation of the Agreement, is no small achievement. In An Phoblacht on 29 July 1999, Gerry Adams wrote:

“From the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 until the UUP prevented the transfer of power and the establishment of the institutions two weeks ago - a period of almost 16 months - the peace process has limped from one unionist-induced crisis to another.”

Months became years and every step along the way - the establishment of an Executive that included Sinn Féin ministers, policing reform, demilitarisation, all-Ireland institutions, Irish language rights and more - Unionist road-blocks were set up, usually supported by the British government. But change happened.

David Trimble was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the majority party of unionism, when he endorsed the Agreement. He was rightly credited for doing so, but he failed to fully embrace it and to promote it to his followers and he never ceased looking over his shoulder at his anti-agreement DUP rivals.

The UUP was in continuing crisis and the process of implementing the Agreement paid the price. Then, when the DUP had overtaken the UUP as the main unionist party, they too realised that the Agreement was the only show in town, their only route to political office.

There was a decade of the Executive with DUP First Ministers, beginning with Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Peace was consolidated, the Agreement was firmly in place, but its implementation was slowed to a snail’s pace by the DUP.

Mícheál Mac Donncha article 2

The ‘cash for ash’ scandal involving DUP First Minister Arlene Foster was the last straw for Sinn Féin and, in January 2017, Martin McGuiness resigned as Deputy First Minister. His resignation letter is very instructive about how the DUP had behaved since they entered the Executive:

“Over ten difficult and testing years, in the role of Deputy First Minister, I have sought with all my energy and determination to serve all the people of the North and the island of Ireland by making the power-sharing government work.

“Throughout that time, I have worked with successive DUP First Ministers and, while our parties are diametrically opposed ideologically and politically, I have always sought to exercise my responsibilities in good faith and to seek resolutions rather than recrimination. I have worked tirelessly to defend our peace process, to advance the reconciliation of our community and to build a better future for our young people.

“At times, I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated by unionist leaders. At times, they have been met with outright rejection.

“The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community, and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.

“Over this period, successive British governments have undermined the process of change by refusing to honour agreements, refusing to resolve the issues of the past while imposing austerity and Brexit against the wishes and best interests of people here.”

Mícheál Mac Donncha article 3

Just how far the DUP went in acting against the interests of the people they were supposed to represent and against the Agreement was revealed in the Brexit shambles. A majority in the Six Counties voted to remain in the EU. But the DUP had gladly provided its party funds to the Brexit campaign (already over its permitted spending limit in Britain) to lavish on a final advertising splurge in England that helped to get the vote to leave the EU over the line. This left Ireland potentially further divided by Brexit with one part in the EU and one part outside it. 

While the Executive was restored in 2020, the DUP was wedded to Brexit and its relationship with the British Tory government. The Executive became a hostage to that fraught DUP-Tory, love-hate relationship. 

The DUP thought that Brexit would trump the Good Friday Agreement and they would get their way. They thought the Tories’ love for ‘our precious Union’ would outweigh the British government’s need to get international trade deals and rebuild some form of relationship with the EU. The Protocol, which simply recognises the reality of the island of Ireland and the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, proved that the DUP were wrong. And so in February 2022, the DUP pulled the plug on the Executive yet again. 

We now know the outcome of the negotiations between the British government and the EU on the Protocol. One thing is certain. It will not be setting aside the Good Friday Agreement. Under the Agreement, one party is set to have the position of First Minister and that party is Sinn Féin, as a result of its performance in the May 2022 Assembly elections. And under the Agreement also, there is the key provision for a referendum on Irish Unity. Yes, events have moved very slowly over the past 25 years, but the direction of travel is clear. 

Will the next era be that of Irish Unity? It is up to us now to make certain that the answer is ‘Yes!’ 

Mícheál Mac Donncha is a Sinn Féin Dublin City Councillor.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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