Northern Ireland: New thinking needed to tackle transition challenges
On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Accord, speaking at the Library of Congress, Senator George Mitchell reminded us that “life is a change.”
Nothing is still. Now is the time to look at the trends and changes in Ireland and chart the way forward.
Ireland today is changed and changing. The Good Friday Agreement approved by the people in 1998 remains valid and essential.
The principles of the agreement remain a constant in a changing world; commitment to peaceful and democratic means, respect and equal rights for all, reconciliation and support for the law. The constitutional future of the island will be determined by the democratic will of the people.
Much has changed since 1998. Sinn Fein has become the largest party in Ireland. He jointly heads the Assembly and the Executive in the North.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald is the first woman to lead the official opposition in Dublin. The citizens of the 26 counties have led progressive changes in LGBT rights and women’s health.
In the North, the Assembly and the government no longer have a Unionist majority. It is a chamber and an executive of equals. It is a young, diverse and progressive society in transition.
Sinn Fein leads the polls, and it is not inconceivable that the party could lead governments north and south.
At the time of the signing of the agreement, unionism / worker loyalty was a force for peace and protest for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Paralyzed by quarrels and crime, the loyalist political project failed to garner popular support and withered, endorsing the main Unionist parties in the following elections.
Unionist paramilitaries continue to exist, recruit and remain active. Their latest project, the Loyalist Community Council, without a mandate or popular support, issues countless statements of condemnation of Irish Republicans, the Irish government, other trade unionists, the UK government, the US and the EU. All accompanied by thinly veiled threats of violence.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is not a trusted partner in peace. It acts like a rogue state regardless of international agreements or the law.
Its policies in Ireland are driven by selfish political interests and a contempt for their own agreements. They put aside truth, justice and reconciliation to continue to cover up the actions of their soldiers during the conflict.
Successive Conservative governments have given up on any pretense of impartiality, viewed the North as collateral damage in the pursuit of Brexit, wooed trade unionists to stay in power, abandoned trade unionists when appropriate and are now playing the orange card and threats of trade union violence in their EU negotiations.
The DUP is the leader of political unionism in chaos. The party continues to oppose the Good Friday Agreement, while jointly leading the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. A paradox that they have never resolved.
The old hypothesis of a perpetual unionist majority no longer holds, a fact that trade unionism has struggled to accept.
There is a need for a paradigm shift in terms of US and Irish policy in the peace process. Recognize that the agreement was not a settlement, but a process of managing the company in transition.
Stability will not come from the censorship of the future. Irish unity is not just an aspiration – it is a practical and possible achievement. There will be a referendum on unity, and it can be won.
Talking about Irish unity does not create instability.
The instability stems from those who reject the democratic principle of the Good Friday Agreement and the fundamental equality of all citizens.
Instability is created by blocking the rights of citizens, be they Irish speakers, women, ethnic minorities or the LGBT community against the will of a majority.
Instability is fostered by elevating active paramilitary groups and their threats of violence.
The persistent refusal to implement the agreements undermines the primacy of politics and devalues the political process.
Stability will be found in adherence to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. Equality and rights. Peaceful and democratic means without threat. Reconciliation and respect. By affirming the primacy of the political process over threats of violence.
All of this calls for a new approach. A paradigm shift in politics.
Constitutional discussion can be a force for stability. To recognize and normalize the discussion is to accept the diversity of opinions.
The recognition that a majority determines the constitutional future fundamentally changes the political process. Stability is based on democratic values.
The policy of threat and exclusion will not guarantee a majority for a continued partition of unity and has no place in our society.
America has a role to play in explaining, endorsing and safeguarding the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. He can use his position to force the UK government to stick to its agreements. The appointment of a special envoy is a safeguard and an essential guarantor of the agreements and the political process.
The United States can be clear that the discussion of further Irish partition or unity is part of the Good Friday deal. Normalizing discussion and facilitating informed and respectful debate will not fuel tension but will affirm the primacy of dialogue.
There is a minority who say now is not the time. Do not rock the boat.
This short-term opportunity undermines the deal. The boat has set sail. It’s about navigating the way forward.
The Good Friday Agreement remains the mechanism for managing change. To realize its full potential, it is necessary to recognize that we are in a period of transition. This will require new thinking and new approaches to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
(Ciaran Quinn is the United States representative for Sinn Fein)