EDITORIAL: Remembering the lessons of peace processes
The Good Friday Agreement is 25 years old, and it still has much to teach us
US President Joe Biden is probably the most Irish president since John F Kennedy. After more than four decades as a senator working the halls of American power he is the most experienced politician in generations to sit in the oval office.
Biden’s disdain for Brexit and its effect on peace in Northern Ireland is no doubt coloured by this. Everybody who worries about peace in the province saw the hard border between the north and the republic as fraught with danger as the UK negotiated its exit from the EU.
This Easter’s 25th anniversary of the signing of the agreement — and Biden’s visit to Ireland — comes after a tricky period. As an experienced operator in bipartisan politics Biden recognises the treacherous nature of the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Looking back over “25 extraordinary years”, it is worth recalling what the agreement set out to achieve.
To find agreement between the parties — blood enemies made up of Irish nationalists, who wanted a united Ireland run from Dublin, and the Ulster Unionists, who supported British rule in the province — it was necessary to change the constitution of the Irish republic, free IRA and loyalist paramilitary prisoners who had committed atrocities including murders, and set up functional self-government from among these deeply divided parties.
That this was achieved remains to this day a guiding light for those who want to see the power of politics change things for the better. At the time, a collection of committed people — then-president Bill Clinton, US senator George Mitchell, British prime minister Tony Blair, secretary of state for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam, taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the political leaders of the two sides, as well as the paramilitary leadership — were able to construct a treaty that created space for continuing peaceful disagreement, total disarmament and devolved government.
Difficult and painful compromises were made by all sides. For Unionists, it was difficult to see the IRA’s commander, Martin McGuinness, in government. For Republicans, giving up the fight for a united Ireland was hard. It’s a stain on Boris Johnson’s record that he risked this peace with his gung-ho Brexit approach, as anyone who saw the delicate and fraught peace process play out will understand.
The Good Friday Agreement is among a small number of extraordinary political interventions that have undone what once seemed intractable. Among them we can count our own negotiated transition to democracy, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the adoption of our own constitution. Like the Good Friday Agreement, yesterday’s hard-won peace is put at risk by today’s collection of rather less inspirational political actors.
Brutalised societies such as ours take generations to heal. Processes put in place to enable this to happen need to be nurtured. In today’s SA, different sorts of injustice prevail. Poverty, crime and corruption are out of control, posing great risk to what remains of the social compact built in the 1990s.
In the UK, a more pragmatic approach to Northern Ireland and Brexit (the Windsor Framework) by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seems to have rescued peace. In SA, more than ever, it is inspirational political leadership that will salvage the promise of 1994. It is gravely troubling how bare our cupboards are in this regard.
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