Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why the Good Friday agreement still matters

For the people of Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement is sovereign, not a tool of political expediency, writes SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

Twenty years on from when the people of this island endorsed the principle of power-sharing through the Good Friday agreement, it is deeply troubling that we have arrived at this dangerous and difficult point.

Having been denied a government for over a year, our health and education budgets are badly in need of investment and decisions. While the extra money is needed and therefore welcome, it should also be added that much of what has been announced barely plugs current budgetary holes and the big rise in the regional rate will hurt many families.

The key point is while we all understand that a budget is needed it should never have been set by one political party in Northern Ireland – this is not the Democratic Unionist party’s money, after all. It is obvious that the political needs of that party will never serve the needs of everyone in Northern Ireland. We now risk seeing that pattern of economic discrimination playing out again, only this time it is enacted in the corridors of Westminster without a functioning assembly to give some level of accountability and transparency.

📖 Read: Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin on why only single market membership can deliver the Irish border we need

I can only see one solution that will move us away from this new Conservative-DUP status quo. Either the immediate restoration of the Stormont assembly or through the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, both governments should jointly agree a package of legislation on language, legacy and reform of the petition of concern – the ability for one political group to veto proposed legislation. In other words, clear the decks of disagreement and then challenge us all to get back to work and get back to the Good Friday agreement.

Otherwise, it does not matter how many protests and posters we organise against the DUP – they will still be in power. People deserve to know – in the absence of devolution, the DUP is making all the decisions and doling out all of the money.

Brexit’s deep disturbance may not always be directly referred to in the heat of our political discourse but it has totally changed the dynamics and trajectory of northern politics. Instead of engaging directly with the coming consequences of Brexit, we have sometimes distilled those battles into the more familiar territory of language and culture.

No-one should be in any doubt though – the instability of Brexit and the instability faced by the institutions of the Good Friday agreement are inextricably linked. The Good Friday agreement is our best defence against the economic and political dangers of Brexit and our best escape option from the narrowness of its ideological vision. As identified in the phase one Brexit agreement, the totality of relationships incorporated within the Good Friday agreement charts a course towards a totality of the solutions for the island of Ireland.

The panic of the Brexiteers stems from their worry that our solution could find its way onto the shores of Britain. The obvious gaping hole in all of this analysis is that the key pillars of the Good Friday agreement have been left on the vine to wither.

Northern Ireland has been without a government for 13 months. The lack of an assembly and executive has left our people voiceless during the entire course of the Brexit negotiations.

In 1980, then Social Democratic and Labour party leader John Hume set out ‘three strands’ of relationships for peace: between the people of Northern Ireland; between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and between Britain and Ireland. The dangers now facing those three strands are real, but we must be clear in understanding how their fate is decided. Within that understanding, hope still remains that the delicate architecture of our peace can be revived and renewed. The future of the Good Friday agreement cannot be decided by two parties who have produced a failed negotiation – it is not their agreement and it is not their decision. That decision is for the Irish people alone – the agreement and the solution belongs to all of us. In Northern Ireland – the Good Friday agreement is sovereign.

All of democratic Ireland had a role in building and supporting that historic solution – which we endorsed on this island some 20 years ago. It is now more important than ever that all of us stand by them and stand by that solution.

Neither Brexit nor the DUP and Sinn Féin should be allowed to dismantle our hard won peace accord. Neither the British government nor the Irish government should risk any part of the Good Friday agreement. The solution must be in getting back to where it all started. Back to the spirit of cooperation and accommodation of both traditions on our island.

🎙 Podcast: Jonathan Powell on how Brexit affects the peace process

We will always come back to the same place – we will always have to learn to live and share this piece of our country together. The Good Friday agreement is the imperfect architecture that allows us to do that, that protects and accommodates all peoples with respect. Our vision for a new Ireland has always been an inclusive Ireland in which the North functions and all peoples have a sense of belonging. The Good Friday agreement embodies that vision and that hope for a better society.

Just as we have done many times before, the people of Northern Ireland will once again have to rise to the challenges that face us. The socio-economic and political challenges of Brexit – and of having no government. Those are challenges that the SDLP wished this place would not be faced with, challenges that add further instability, deeper hardship and force our peoples apart rather than together. To those who have brought us to this place I say they should reflect on the grave and serious consequences their actions will have – and to act now in the interests of the people of these islands and move away from the narrowness of party politics and choose to build a new politics. The sands beneath us are shifting and while we must all have the courage to change, we must continue to build on the foundations that brought us together.

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Colum Eastwood is leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party. He tweets at @columeastwood

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Photo: Robert Paul Young, licensed under Creative Commons

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