We have a roadmap to a shared future, if only we’d use it by Emma DeSouza

August 24, 2020

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The Good Friday Agreement represented a compromise. As with most compromises, they’re often hard-won, and not without sacrifice. Any person or entity who is a party to an agreement, be it social or political, rarely sees their wishes met to the full extent of their liking, and certainly not without conceding to terms which benefit the other party or parties involved.

Such was the case with the Good Friday Agreement- or GFA for short. It took the extraordinary vision, determination, and willpower of a generation of peacemakers to bring the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives to an agreement. The GFA was the culmination of years of extensive negotiations, which required the intervention of the Irish, British, and American governments in order to convince the vast majority of regional political parties to make a profound leap of faith.

To this day, striking an agreement between the two main communities of Northern Ireland and bringing an end to thirty years of violence and bloodshed is seen as a shining beacon of peace, reverence, and cooperation- an example which many countries and communities look to as inspiration and aspiration alike.

John Hume

Civil Rights Leader John Hume

The peace process was of course the result of the efforts of numerous dedicated individuals, but much of its success can be attributed to the tireless work of a select few. One of these singular leaders is the now-legendary John Hume, Ireland’s peacemaker, a giant of a man who, with all his being, believed in peace and reconciliation at a time when such ideas seemed fantastical to some, unimaginable to others, and virtually impossible to most. He gave hope to an entire generation that peace was more than a dream, it was possible.

John’s message was clear – there had to be an agreement; “All conflict is about difference,” he said. “The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity.” The Good Friday Agreement was not the end but the beginning of a healing process. For in the words of John Hume, “The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people”

That division still exists today. Despite the magnitude of the GFA, ushering into place a treaty of bonding and compromise was merely a starting point- a foundation upon which change could, over time, be formed and enacted. Born out of the Good Friday Agreement was a peace accord founded on the principles of equality and mutual respect, with an onus on the co-guarantors of Britain and Ireland to protect and enshrine these fundamentals into domestic policy and practice. A complex and nuanced combination of legislation, reform, and good will has historically always served as essential catalysts for the creation of effective newly-formed institutions, with many modern examples having flourished under the protective blanket of EU law. As a co-guarantor of the agreement, the British government was required, under its international obligations, to give domestic legal effect to all relevant provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, and to implement into legislation the principals and rights which the signed commitments afforded its people. Within a year of the Good Friday Agreement’s finalization, the Irish government had augmented its citizenship laws and constitution to reflect these new rights. Over 20-years-on, the British government has failed to do the same.

Good Friday Agreement

In its language, the Good Friday Agreement affords the people of Northern Ireland the explicit right to decide their own identity; be it Irish, or British, or both- with each respective government agreeing to accept that free choice. Identity in Northern Ireland cuts across religion, political expression, and nationality. Respect for identity is a central component of the Agreement. That an Irish citizen exerting their right to be Irish was seen by any as an affront to their own British identity is a dire reflection of where this society is over 20 years later.

passport british and Irish

Many of rights-based provisions of the Good Friday Agreement have yet to be implemented or have been misimplemented. Education remains 93% segregated, mixed housing initiatives are disappointing, victims are having to go to court for long overdue compensation and Irish citizens are being told that they are British whether they like it or not.

That an Irish language act has been a point of contention shows just how deep in a state of stasis this region is. Irish language is the indigenous language of this island, it should be respected in the same manner as all indigenous languages, be that Maori or Australian Aboriginal languages. Preservation of indigenous languages should always be encouraged and yet in Northern Ireland, it is used as a political pulpit from which to stoke tensions and create fear.

DUP refuses to implement Irish Language Act

Progress has stagnated and through this stagnation, old resentments and fears have been allowed to re-emerge. The rights-based rosins of the Good Friday Agreement were aimed at softening identities, with the hope that by creating a society of equals the border in the hearts and minds of people would come down. I don’t want to be too pessimistic, we are a long way from 1998, but that progress can be largely attributed to the people, who wanted peace above all else. Could more have been done to foster that desire? Absolutely. Integrated education, mixed housing, a bill of rights- all form part of meaningful reconciliation for the betterment of our shared future.

The question of what that future might look like has been hotly debated since the Brexit referendum. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and has, uniquely, a route back into the EU via the Good Friday Agreement. It is not in my view a question of if, but when, there will be a referendum of the reunification on this island. To prepare for that eventuality we must work to heal the divisions in hearts and minds.

That division that John Hume speaks of isn’t unique to the North, one need only look to the recent protestations about the supposed interference of Northerners when Green party members voted through the programme for government. The Green Party is an all-island party. Senator David Norris wondered if “I am the only one who thinks it extraordinary that a group of 800 UK citizens from the North of Ireland, who are members of the Green Party, have the right to dictate what government we have in the Republic?” When it came to citizens in the North, who have a birthright to be accepted as Irish or British or both, having any say in Irish affairs they morphed into “UK citizens.” Legally there’s no such thing as UK citizenship, it’s British citizenship. Senator Norris had no way of knowing how many of the Norths Green Party members hold British citizenship. Such an assumption is not unique to either Senator Norris or the Green Party. In my new role as vice-chair of votingrights.ie (an organisation campaigning for the extension of presidential voting rights for Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and abroad) I’ve encountered a similar mind-set. It’s as if we go through a kind of metamorphosis in the minds of some Irish citizens in the Republic, having transformed it seems from Irish citizens in the North to Sinn Fein voters. The Irish President represents the Irish nation, and serves as a symbol of Irish culture and tradition. The office of the President recognises all Irish citizens as equals, and represents the Irish people on the world stage. Limiting this vote to only those resident in the State is a discriminatory system. There are over 800,000 Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, in the last general election 181,853 people voted for Sinn Fein. This proposition, that proposes to know the voting intentions of almost a million citizens isn’t based on facts or reality but rather points to a different kind of border, the one that exists in hearts and minds.

We are all in the midst of a crisis like no other – a global pandemic which has transformed the way many of us live our lives, and has required us to curtail hard-fought civil liberties and societal norms as we all collectively work to save lives- ironically- by staying apart. This viral outbreak has brought about a kind of communal pause from the fast-paced lifestyle to-which so many of us have become accustomed. These past weeks and months, a period of time which will not soon be forgotten, have served as a poignant reminder of what matters most to us all- our family, our friends, our communities. All of us have been brought together in shared grief and solidarity, despite being pulled apart. Our collective response to this emergency has been a display of strength, the power of humanity, and our will as a people. It is a time a reflect on our commonalities not our differences. We still have a long way to go but the Good Friday Agreement has shown us the way. We have a roadmap, if only we’d use it.

Emma DeSouzaEmma DeSouza is from Magherafelt in Co Derry, and is a citizens rights campaigner for the GFA. Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie Fought the law & won. First book is in the works, represented by Robert Caskie
You can follow Emma and her campaign on Twitter here.

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