Pic: Trimble and Hume celebrate Good Friday Agreement
Below: Cllr Matt Collins
As the North approaches the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement—the multilateral agreement that signalled the end of decades of violence during what is euphemistically termed ‘the troubles’ – we can expect a great deal of media gushing over events two decades ago in an effort to resurrect the ‘spirit’ of 1998 among political leaders to help solve the crisis that engulfs the North today.
However, the whirlwind of instability that has gripped the North from Brexit and its subsequent fall out – the RHI ‘cash for ash’ scandal and the collapse of the political institutions at Stormont, to the current political impasse – only illustrates the limitations of the agreements underpinning the ‘peace process’.
The dominant narrative flowing from the 1998 Good Friday (GFA) or Belfast Agreement was that it would lay the basis for resolving sectarianism and the question of the border.
The agreement, we were told, would herald a ‘New Northern Ireland’; a normal democratic society in which working class people would apparently prosper.
In fact, the GFA and the institutions that it established created the conditions that guarantee sectarian division and political crisis would continually re-emerge.
The GFA enshrined communal divisions so that politicians register as ‘Unionist’ or ‘Nationalist’ and elections take the form of competition between ‘both sides’ in order to strengthen their position in the power sharing government carve-up.
Consequently, rather than seeing the slow decay of sectarianism, we regularly witness its resurgence and the political structures in the North are part of the problem.
The pattern is obvious: from the Hillsborough Agreement, through to the Hass talks, to round 2 of the Hass talks.
The same pattern has followed the Stormont House Agreement, and afterward the so-called ‘Fresh Start Agreement’.
The current stalemate at Stormont is the culmination of a much deeper crisis at the heart of the northern state.
It was sparked by the RHI scandal, a corrupt scheme set up under DUP leader and former first Minister Arlene Foster that squandered £500 million of public money.
It led to a situation where a significant section of the business community was benefiting from literally burning public money.
For example, one Ferrari show room in Belfast would avail of free heating for 20 years; this in an area where a few miles down the road pensioners face fuel poverty.
On a deeper level RHI exposed the instability of modern day unionism.
No longer able to run the Northern state like the big house unionists of yesteryear by handing out preferential treatment to their supporters in a nakedly sectarian way.
Modern day unionism increasingly relies upon a series of corrupt schemes to maintain a support base.
RHI was only the most recent scandal among a long list, including Red Sky and NAMA, leading to outrage but no proper accountability. RHI came off the back of years of neo-liberalism, austerity and cutbacks espoused by the then SF/DUP government, becoming nakedly visible in the Stormont House Agreement.
This was met with a lightening rod of discontent, which gave confidence to those fighting other struggles, such the Irish language community.
On a more fundamental level the crisis has called into question the very nature of the political establishment set up as part of the peace process.
20 years on after the Good Friday Agreement and working class people, both Catholic and Protestant, are forced to endure a society in which 25% of children live in poverty, where job losses, the running down of public services and benefit cuts have become the order of the day, and where basic rights, such as the right to same sex marriage, a woman’s right to choose, resolution of legacy issues and equality for Irish language speakers is denied.
Stormont fails because it cannot deliver for ordinary people, because it is based upon sectarianism, division and inequality.
Whatever the outcome of the current talks process: whether another shoddy deal is cut, or Stormont is mothballed and we see a prolonged period of direct rule, it is clear that real change will only come from below.
As new movements for change develop across Ireland it is crucial to see a positive future emerging not from the rotten institutions of either Stormont or the Dáil, but from people power and mobilisation from below against the reactionary nature of both states.
20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement we need a socialism for the 21st century in order to make a radical break from the failures of institutionalised sectarianism and capitalism.