The 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement seems a long time ago now. While it was a jovial affair there was also concern regarding institutions which been down a year and there was advice from the older men of local politics to the younger women of local politics to get Stormont up and running again. It felt as disconnected to our present as it was connected to the past.
The truth is that the language of peace process has not fit into post Good Friday Agreement politics for some time. No matter your opinion on the matters, the contest over victims’ payments resulting in a court case, and the tweet by Martina Anderson only serve to highlight how far from those aspirations we have travelled.
Once upon a time in politics on this island there was a commitment to building peace and understanding, to reaching beyond one’s own community and experience. Irish presidents used words and poetry to acknowledge a painful past and create a new future. British royalty went to places that local unionism would not, extending hands of friendship and bringing laurel leaves of peace. Republican leaders acknowledged the pain and hurt of past actions and forged friendship where previously enmity existed. We took those “set pieces” for granted but they were historic and created environments of possibility and hope. They told a weary population on both islands that generosity was a good thing and reaching out was rewarded.
It is a long time since hands of history were extended in friendship rather than necessity and currently there is little public pressure on anyone to change that.
The lack of republican appetite for renewal of these approaches is partly because of how acts of generosity and historic set pieces were treated. Martin McGuinness led from the front with meeting victims of the IRA, British royals and visiting sites of harm. While he did this there was no reciprocation from unionism. Once Dr Ian Paisley left the stage there was no one from unionism to meet Martin McGuinness on the fields of peace making, it was taken for granted and Irish identity and aspiration was still treated with contempt. In particular there has been no recognition of the harms unionism engaged in.
To an extent this rejection of an outstretched hand was hidden by the Royal family’s role in reconciliation. Queen Elizabeth and her family in words and action sought to create a new relationship between the peoples of our islands. While Orange bands marched and sang songs of insult outside St Patricks chapel in Belfast, Prince Charles visited it and met with local residents.
But those times appear over and it is notable that since David Cameron left office following the Brexit vote all attention to building peace left with him. The dismantling of the Stormont House Agreement means further broken promises for victims, but also wider impact. There has been a growth in a singular conflict narrative by Britain since the Brexit vote. It is an approach which ignores international legal obligations, ignores the bi-partisan nature of the agreement itself and most crucially disregards the imperative to heal the wounds of our shared past. The current British government clearly do not care that wrongs were done by previous administrations and don’t care that those wrongs still harm those who survived and our transitional society today. They only care about protecting their own forces and narratives.
The political vacuum of governance has been filled since January and the signing of New Decade New Approach, but there is no indication that the vacuum in building reconciliation and acknowledgement will be filled any time soon. But more worryingly it seems that there little appetite from anyone, local parties, or from the two governments to do anything about that.
Actions or lack of actions can enhance or diminish opportunities for peace building and opportunities for healing the wounds of the past. No one party or government can do the work on their own. Maybe the past few months should give us pause to think.