Parliament

Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: 25th Anniversary

Published date : 30 March, 2023
This is the second debate in which I have participated in Westminster this week on the theme of the 25th anniversary of events. A debate was held a couple of days ago in Westminster Hall on the 25th anniversary of Welsh devolution, and it has been something of start for me to realise that I no longer measure my involvement in party politics in years or decades, but do so in increments of quarter centuries and even more.

However, it has been an incredible privilege to listen to the contributions we have heard so far today and I very much look forward to those to come. It was also a great privilege to attend the last session of the British- Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast just a few weeks ago. It was a special session convened to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

As part of that session, which was held in the magnificent debating Chamber at Stormont, it was fantastic to hear from some of the figures who played a key role in bringing about the agreement. We heard from the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern; Sir John Holmes, who served as the principal private secretary to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair; Baron Murphy of Torfaen, who was a Minister of State when the Good Friday agreement was signed and went on to serve as Secretary of State.

We were also party to a fantastic panel discussion involving members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition—Kate Fearon, Bronagh Hinds, Dr Avila Kilmurray and Jane Morrice, who were all ably chaired by the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). Hearing their insights about the work that was done individually and collectively in communities to bring people to a space where, irrespective of the tradition people had come from, they could sign up to the principles of this and move forward to put Northern Ireland on a better path was truly inspirational. It was fascinating to hear that and to hear about the work that was done to make sure that the Good Friday agreement could not only come about, but take root and take effect. I found that a very valuable transfusion of knowledge from the generation of politicians and officials who had been there on the ground at the time to the cohort of politicians who have been charged with taking an interest, moving things on and creating the political environment in which we hope relations can continue to move forward in a positive direction in our own time.

We know what the key parts of the agreement were and all that flowed from them. We saw the establishment of new institutions, such as the Northern Irish Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the North South Ministerial Council. It led the way to the decommissioning under the supervision of General de Chastelain. Much to the angst, anxiety and pain of many, it saw prisoner release as part of that process. It also saw the British Government committing to incorporating the European convention on human rights into the law of Northern Ireland and established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. I have no doubt that, all through that, a number of untidy compromises needed to be made and there were a lot of concessions that must have tasted quite bitter at the time. It required tremendous movement on all sides, from historical, and perhaps even established and comfortable, positions. I certainly do not underestimate the personal toll that the leadership that was required to effect those positional changes must have taken on the participants.

It is also very difficult to overestimate the wider importance of the Good Friday agreement and the role that it played not only in the peace process in Northern Ireland, but in inspiring others in contested polities and areas around the world in providing an example of how progress can be made. The DNA underpinning the agreement is that of a recognition of the need for equality and depolarisation, mutual respect, and respect for the civil rights and religious liberties of everyone in the community.

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I thank the hon. Member for sharing that insight. South Africa is indeed one of the examples that we could have chosen, but I am sure that Northern Ireland serves as an inspiration elsewhere and to many others in terms of how contested political status can be worked through. Perhaps most important of all, it reinforced the principle of consent—that the UK had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland and that the people of Northern Ireland had the absolute right to choose their own constitutional future, which in turn was recognised by the Irish Government removing their territorial claim on Northern Ireland from the Republic’s constitution. It represented a stepping back from some of the comforting certainties and absolutes that had dominated the discussion on the future of Northern Ireland to open up a space where, yes, identity still mattered—how could it not?—but where that political space could be shared more easily and where people’s birthright to identify and to be accepted as British or Irish, or even both, and to hold citizenship for both states could be a reality. As the late great John Hume said, it also allowed Northern Ireland the chance to take the gun out of Irish politics.

In this 25th anniversary year, it is inevitable that there will be a focus on the strand 1 institutions. Certainly, I have expressed on more than one occasion my own disappointment that the North South Ministerial Council remains in abeyance, that Stormont is not sitting at a time when political direction from that Government and from politicians directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland is needed, arguably, more than it has ever been, given some of the challenges that are faced by the people of Northern Ireland on day-to-day issues of public sector delivery. But there are still many positives to take from the place that we are at.

Although I have lived through the history of the Good Friday agreement in my lifetime, it is inevitably from the prism of a viewpoint from Scotland, rather than from the perspective of somebody who has lived in Northern Ireland. Although I am wary of making too many comparisons and observations, on my visits to Northern Ireland since taking up the spokespersonship, I have been struck by the differences between what we used to see in grainy television footage from years gone by and the reality of modern Northern Ireland on the ground, the prosperity and vibrancy across Northern Ireland.

That prosperity is undeniable, both on the ground and in the statistics. Again, how could it not be? The reason for this is well captured in a report by the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, which noted that the Good Friday agreement had brought about

“a growing impact on stability and certainty, both in Ireland and in Britain, and a positive impact on economic growth and investment.”

OCO Global noted in a recent report:

“Exports have more than doubled since 1998, with GDP per capita growth exceeding most other parts of the UK.”

So there is little doubt that the peace dividend has brought a prosperity dividend. As we have heard from earlier contributions and interventions, it is perhaps easy, particularly for those who have not lived through the past quarter century and have no direct memory of the troubles, to take some of the advances of that period for granted.

For all the prosperity, we still see signs of a divided society today—a society that is more divided that we would wish it to be, whatever strides forward have been taken. We can see it from the prosperity of central Belfast: the peace walls that still snake their way out through the communities around the centre. We can see that physical segregation. We can see the segregation that continues in schools and in housing. For all that Northern Ireland has firmly embraced peace, we have had a salutary reminder this week, with the raising of the level of the terrorist threat, that there are elements in Northern Irish society that remain and prosper in the shadows of criminality, who would not hesitate to return to violence and intimidation to advance their agendas, given the opportunity.

The future is very much better now than it was 25 years ago. There was optimism then. Perhaps in the 25 years, the optimism has not lived up to the levels of optimism we had, but there can be absolutely no doubt that Northern Ireland is a society transformed from then. The future is still something to be written. Agreements evolve and develop and circumstances change. There is no bigger circumstance than Brexit, which has caused significant turbulence in British-Irish relationships, particularly in Northern Ireland. It damaged trust, and much needs to be done to restore that trust. That requires mature leadership, and the effective operation of the strand 1 institutions can very much play a part in that.

It was inevitable that the circumstance of Brexit would force a reappraisal among people of these islands, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, about the political relationships that they would wish to have and the future to which they aspire. As that happens, it is very important to go back to the key element of the Good Friday agreement and to respect the principle of consent—just as those who brought the Good Friday agreement into existence a quarter of a century ago recognised that it had to be at the heart of progress in Northern Ireland.

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