Friday, February 01, 2013

Mary McAleese: Good Friday and the future of peace in Northern Ireland

“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".

The former 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.

“The parties 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”.

In 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 City Hall.

“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 way”.

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?

“There 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”.

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