“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. Words attributed to President Thomas Jefferson.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of our peace accord. Few would doubt that it is in critical trouble. It is worth digging out the Agreement to re-read. What was there in it that ensured such ringing endorsement across our island? Was it a population tired of conflict voting for something that gave them respite? Maybe it was Bono raising David Trimble’s and John Hume’s sweaty arms in the air that moved us?
For me, it was a tough compromise that gave us an opportunity to build new relationships in peaceful frameworks. A compromise that added up to a vision for building peace. But that effort to speak and endorse peace cannot be left as an historical moment. This is where eternal vigilance comes in.
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the horrific murder of Terry Enright. It was an horrific month for state sponsored murder. The LVF, UDA and the UVF were involved in multiple killings throughout that Spring. While 1998 might be remembered for a peace accord the killings continued long after April. Of course the anniversary that will receive most coverage this year will be the Omagh bombing. But for the families who were torn apart in individual killings 1998 was no less traumatic and the questions asked no less important.
Terry Enright was killed with a state weapon that would not be considered relevant in the subsequent processes of decommissioning. The family of Fergal McCusker point to the RUC doing absolutely nothing. The killings of Larry Brennan and John McColgan, killed as they worked in their taxis on the Ormeau Road and Hannahstown by the LVF, riddled with state agents. Will these and all of the other killings be remembered as anything other than footnotes as we look at the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement? God forbid attention is drawn to the obvious policies of collusion to put pressure on nationalist politicians to sign the deal. Indeed in that context it is absolutely miraculous that a document based on human rights covenants and aspiration could have emerged in the way that it did. And along with others, the women in those rooms, Bairbre De Brún, BrídRodgers and Monica McWilliams deserve huge credit for that.They were vigilant and had an eye to the long term.
But what has that got to do with vigilance today? Well if the British state under the stewardship of Tony Blair engaged in collusion with loyalism to ensure a deal in 1998, because we were all so sick in our hearts of death and trauma. If they could ensure absolute state impunity for the collusion in these killings and in the Omagh bombing, then what will they do to ensure their interests now? We currently have a conflict that is not causing more victims but sickeningly revictimizing those victims who have already suffered. It is a sick dystopian version of us not learning from the past and history repeating itself. It is undermining the peace accord itself.
1998 was considered end game. It turns out the end game may last longer than the conflict itself. We all need to look at the big picture of the policies that surround us and be eternally vigilant.