The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
April 06, 2007

The spirit of 1798 and the Good Friday Agreement nine years on: The deal-makers of 1998 have been swept away by their more hardline counterparts - but, argues John Bew, their deal lives on

Posted by John Bew

John Bew - Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century - assesses the legacy nine years on of Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The deal-makers of 1998 have been swept away by their more hardline counterparts - but, argues John Bew, their deal lives on.

It is hard to think that it was nine years ago when the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement were finally completed. Back in 1998, the Prime Minister looked a lot younger and the faces of the Northern Ireland politicians who were deemed to be the deal-makers were very different from those that we have seen on our screens in recent times; Paisley sniped from the sidelines, while David Trimble and John Hume joined Bono and U2 on stage at Belfast's Waterfront Hall.

The initial success of the deal, ratified by a majority of people north and south of the Irish border, depended on its attempt to bring together the moderates from the unionist and nationalist communities. The logic was that it would provide some sustainable and workable basis to local political life: a system which guaranteed shared responsibility was also thought to contain a number of institutional devices that would facilitate some sort of reconciliation between the two communities.

Sinn Fein were welcomed into that arrangement insofar as they signed up to and delivered on the fundamentals of the Agreement. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, the only large Anti-Agreement party, were left to subsist on the dregs, and this is precisely what they did; it is all too often forgotten that they have already been in government with Sinn Fein, when David Trimble was First Minister.

That was how the story was meant to go but the reality became somewhat different.

Things became increasingly difficult for both Trimble and the moderate nationalists at the helm of the original arrangement. Local politics became poisoned as the taboos were lifted on some of the most sensitive areas in Northern Irish society: paramilitary prisoners were released, the Royal Ulster Constabulary came under sustained attack and Martin McGuinness, to the horror of many of the staunchest supporters of the deal, became the Minister for Education. The consequence of this polarisation was the haemorrhaging of electoral support from the centre ground, to those parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP - who were more equipped to play the game of ethnic head-count politics.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, elements within the British, Irish and American governments grew frustrated by the fact that, in David Trimble, they had a partner who was becoming increasingly weak and challenged within his won community. The simple fact is that they valued the continued involvement of the IRA above and beyond the contribution of the constitutional politician who had gambled the most on the project. Behind the scenes, elements of the DUP modified the hard line they took in public, and began to suggest that they could deliver the deal that Trimble was too weak to complete. Government policy gradually shifted towards a new dispensation: to hang the future success of "power-sharing" on ensuring that the Sinn Fein and the DUP were put on centre stage, at almost any price.

Now, the fruits of that policy are visible to all. Ian Paisley sits beside Gerry Adams one day and pays a flying visit to Dublin, to shake Bertie Ahern's hand, the next. The fact is that the British government's gamble on the extremes seems to have paid off, in terms that will allow the Prime Minister to sign off with at least one area of his legacy intact. Of course, for many of those who worked for or voted for the Good Friday Agreement originally, the events of the last few weeks may have been particularly unpalatable. But they have no other option than to accept it.

It remains to be seen whether the moderates can put the new dispensation to their advantage and start out on the long uphill journey to an electoral comeback. The portents are not good. Both the SDLP and the UUP have been largely deserted by the bright young things of local politics. There have been cracks in the unity of Sinn Fein and the DUP but these have not materialised into the full-scale ruptures that many observers predicted. Crucially, the devolutionary gravy train is now in hands of these parties and they will be able to create a whole plethora of institutional junkies along the way.

That having been said, there are certain contradictions that are starting to emerge in the Paisley narrative. On the one hand, we were told that the DUP were the party to bring an end to the "pushover unionism" of the Trimble years. The evidence of this? The DUP managed to force Sinn Fein to move a couple of inches closer to an acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and then to push Peter Hain's deadline for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland back for six weeks.

On the other hand, belying that confident message and stung by criticism from within his own Free Presbyterian Church, Paisley has now claimed that he was protecting the Ulster people from the government's threatened "Plan B", a return to Direct Rule with significantly increased input from Irish government. According to Paisley, the choice was stark:

How would I have faced my people if I had allowed this country to have the union destroyed and the setting up of a joint government by the south of Ireland?
Tough-minded triumph or brave sacrifice? How long can you have your cake and eat it? To paraphrase how Jim Allister - the MEP and the most prominent figure to leave the DUP over this deal - put it, Paisley doth protest too much. The reality, according to Allister, is that the DUP negotiators never really discussed Plan B. His implication is that Paisley did this deal because he positively wanted to be First Minister of Northern Ireland. As he is entitled to ask, why then did the DUP vilify Trimble on the same grounds?

There is also a paradox in the Sinn Fein position that might still point to difficulties for that party later down the line. The fact remains that Sinn Fein have, on the face of it, signed up to a power-sharing arrangement in a province where the sovereignty of the United Kingdom remains in tact. After having had it their own way on a number of small issues for the last ten years, do they really have an interest in settling down to a stable political co-existence with an ethnic enemy that still, it should be said, has an institutional upper hand through its electoral majority?

The republican appetite for unity may be slightly sated by the sight of electoral success in the Irish Republic's forthcoming general election. But if the Sinn Fein vote on both sides of the border starts to hit a glass ceiling, republicans might find themselves encased in a system that makes the constitutional status of Northern Ireland more secure than it has been in thirty years, with no way out.

In the light of both of these realities, here is a message to the moderates and progressives who were behind the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Stop sulking on the sidelines: deal with it, live with it, learn from it and, most importantly, own it. You have three hundred and sixty five days and counting before the ten year anniversary.

In doing so, the original architects of the 1998 Agreement might take stock from two lessons in Irish history, in which a progressive and non-sectarian vision seized the initiative in Irish politics but which eventually lost control of the momentum, as the sectarian narratives of Orange and Green reasserted themselves.

The first was the United Irish rebellion of 1798. The United Irishmen were a body of men of all creeds - although predominately Ulster Presbyterians - who came together in a political organisation in the early 1790s. Inspired by the success of the French Revolution, they were a radical group that demanded sweeping political change. Initially reformist in their intentions, government repression forced them underground and they became increasingly revolutionary. Ultimately, their unsuccessful rebellion of 1798 was a disaster and failed to gauge the extent of sectarian division in late-eighteenth-century Ireland.

Subsequently, loyalists rewrote history and attributed this Presbyterian-led movement to a Popish plot. Republicans retold a rather more green story, in which the doctrine of armed resistance to British rule was canonised above a political movement which preached equal rights for all and a departure from Ireland's divided past and for whom revolution was never an end in itself.

In 1968, the civil rights movement - inspired by its American counterpart and European student movements of that year - took to the streets of Northern Ireland to demand equal rights for all the citizens under the state. Similarly, the leaders of that movement underestimated the resilience of sectarian and ethnic divisions and their protests sparked the scenes of social disorder that spiralled into the early years of "the Troubles". Once more, loyalists drew the false link between the movement for equal rights and violent republicanism. Once more, republicans were quite happy not to contradict this version, to present themselves as another group of freedom fighters involved in a global revolt against injustice.

In both cases, the intention was to bring a new dawn into existence in Irish politics. In both cases, also, the gates of hell were opened to reveal even worse violence and bitterness than had existed before.

Mercifully, this has not been the case since 1998. While there has been an increase in electoral polarisation, it has not, thus far, spilled out beyond the polling stations. And ultimately, however queasy one might feel at seeing Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams assuming their positions at the helm of this new arrangement, the fact is that they are now playing ball within a restrictive framework set for them in 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement - as many hoped it would look in Easter 1998 - might now be dead. Long live the Good Friday Agreement!

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement