“The Good Friday agreement never was a promise that the fighting was over; it was a promise that the two sides involved would come together and work together to try to end the fighting," says Mary McAleese, President of the Republic of Ireland from 1997 to 2011.
McAleese was guest
speaker last Friday evening in the last in a series of public lectures
organised by the Pontifical Gregorian University, titled: "A
spirituality for dialogue and reconciliation".
President is a native of Belfast and is the first person born in
Northern Ireland to have been Head of State in the Republic. As a
Catholic, a law graduate, journalist, law professor and later President,
she has been closely involved in cross community peace building, which
she describes as an ongoing process of dialogue powered by “the greatest
commandant: to love one another”.
“It’s easy to love your
friends; the challenge is to seek out those people who won’t talk to
you. That’s where you start. We are neighbours, living cheek-by-jowl;
no-one’s going anywhere”.
The political deal known as the Good
Friday Agreement which aimed to form the lasting settlement following
the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland, was signed on 10
April 1998, one year after McAleese assumed office.
who signed the Good Friday agreement knew when signing it that peace was
not going to come the next day,” she says. “They had a vested interest
in it and it was an expression of their desire for peace. But they
also knew that you cannot turn your back on 900 years of received
history and bitterness and division and mountains of accumulated hurt.
It takes time. That’s why it was always called a process”.
fact, if bringing Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist factions
to the negotiating table was a long and difficult journey, the
implementation of its details has, at times, been even more gruelling.
The agreement established a Northern Ireland assembly with a
power-sharing executive, and new cross-border institutions involving the
Irish Republic and the UK.
But other proposals, such as the
decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, the future of policing in
Northern Ireland, and the early release of paramilitary prisoners have
met with greater resistance. And at times embedded tensions have boiled
over. This was seen in the recent rioting in Belfast against the
council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag over Belfast
“Flags and emblems are very neuralgic; the agreement
gave a way of being able to honour the commitment to accepting that the
flag of Northern Ireland for the time being – until the people of
Northern Ireland decide otherwise – is the Union Jack [The Union Flag of
UK – ed] . But also to give people the right to create a society where
everybody feels comfortable. So I can understand when they change the
pattern of usage from 365 days a year to 17 it can give people pause of
thought. Tragically I think, those who are rioting are very much the
people who were never brought on board on the Good Friday agreement;
they were probably always anti-the Good Friday agreement. Others who
opposed the flags decision expressed their opposition in a democratic
Many of those involved in the recent riots were young
people, she notes, a “new generation who really do not know the cost of
violence”. So is the passing on of a historic memory of the ‘Troubles’
to younger generations important in the peace building process?
is a real dilemma here, because in the past, both sides handed on that
baton of historic memory in order to hand on the hatred; it was the
conduit for the toxin of sectarianism, of political hatreds as both
sides gave their children and their children’s children, their own
edited version of history. So we have to be careful about how we hand
history on and why we hand it on. There’s a big difference in handing
on the historic memory of, for example, the Shoah in order that Europe
never ever descends again into that madness, that extraordinary evil.
And similarly in Northern Ireland, I think it’s importance that we hand
on the memory of suffering: what price was paid for the Good Friday
Agreement, why the need for compromise, why was it so important. When I
think back to all my years involved in peace building, I never ever was
without the memory of my friends who died. There is a generation now
who don’t know what it was like to live with bombs and bullets and the
army presence on the roads, the abnormality of all that…So I think we
all have to put our heads together to see what we can do to try to calm
the waters and see that these young people – there are manifest elements
of string sectarianism here – but we obviously have work to do here
now. I’m thinking here of the Protestant paramilitaries who are under
enormous pressure at the moment. And I think they are key to any
solution because they know who these young people are and have a link to
them that other people don’t have so we are relying on them to do the
talking and persuading to get the young people off the streets and into
some more meaningful way of living”.