Good Fri­day Agree­ment ‘has not failed, peo­ple have failed it’

Watch­ing two elder states­men of peace cry was a mo­ment of great emo­tion, writes Dearb­hail Mc­Don­ald

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - COMMENT -

THERE’S some­thing about watch­ing grown men cry or strug­gle to con­tain their emo­tions that hits your in­ner core.

When it is the ar­chi­tects and elder states­men of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment (GFA) who strug­gle to main­tain their com­po­sure as they re­call the dark days of the Trou­bles, it hits you even more.

There were au­di­ble gasps, in­clud­ing my own, last Thurs­day night when Sea­mus Mal­lon re­called how his life had been saved on sev­eral oc­ca­sions by his Protes­tant friends and neigh­bours in the pre­dom­i­nantly Union­ist vil­lage of Mar­kethill, Co Ar­magh, where the 81-year-old ti­tan of the peace process still lives.

One thing about Mar­kethill, Mal­lon told a small au­di­ence that in­cluded the At­tor­ney Gen­eral Sea­mus Woulfe and Belfast-born Supreme Court Judge Mr Jus­tice Donal O’Don­nell, is that there are no hid­ing places, no com­fort zones, no places you can sneak into af­ter dark.

“I was among friends,” said Mal­lon, the for­mer deputy leader of the SDLP and the first Deputy First Min­is­ter of North­ern Ire­land.

Fight­ing back a surge of emo­tion that ap­peared to catch him by sur­prise, Mal­lon con­tin­ued: “Those friends were my broth­ers and neigh­bours. And I can tell you that on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions, I would not have been here now had it not been for my Protes­tant friends.”

David Trim­ble, the for­mer UUP leader, first First Min­is­ter of North­ern Ire­land and No­bel Peace Prize win­ner — who is an ar­dent Brex­i­teer — also strug­gled with his emo­tions at an event on me­di­a­tion or­gan­ised by the Bar of Ire­land to mark the hon­orary bench­ing, by the Kings Inns, of Mal­lon, Trim­ble and for­mer Labour leader and Tanaiste Dick Spring.

The voice of the Bri­tish peer, who said he still doesn’t know who nom­i­nated him for his No­bel, broke when he re­called that Mal­lon had at­tended the fu­neral of the late UUP deputy leader Harold McCusker, whose death at an early age from cancer paved the way for Trim­ble to lead the UUP for 15 years and se­cure his place in the his­tory books.

“Peo­ple will re­mem­ber you at that fu­neral,” Trim­ble said to Mal­lon, not­ing that Mal­lon’s at­ten­dance at McCusker’s fu­neral in 1990 — which fol­lowed one of the dead­li­est years of the con­flict — was hugely re­spected by the Union­ist com­mu­nity.

The two men broke the emo­tive at­mos­phere when Trim­ble said to Mal­lon: “I think I bet­ter fol­low your ex­am­ple,” a ref­er­ence to speak­ing briefly at the podium.

“For the first time,” quipped Mal­lon in re­ply, prompt­ing warm laugh­ter in the room.

But the po­lit­i­cal im­passe in North­ern Ire­land is no laugh­ing mat­ter.

De­spite the GFA, whose 20th an­niver­sary falls next year, the two com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern Ire­land are more po­larised than ever.

The mid­dle ground, so vi­tal to sta­bil­ity and co­he­sion, has been oblit­er­ated by Sinn Fein and the DUP, whose only unity is their hard­line stances.

Those in­fa­mous peace walls? There are more now than at any time dur­ing the con­flict. Twenty years af­ter the GFA, more than nine out of 10 schoolchildren are ed­u­cated in seg­re­gated schools.

In an area with high and per­sis­tent lev­els of so­cial de­pri­va­tion — North­ern Ire­land re­quires an an­nual £10bn sub­ven­tion from Lon­don as well as crit­i­cal EU fund­ing to sup­port the com­mu­ni­ties most at risk — more than nine out of 10 re­cip­i­ents of so­cial hous­ing are seg­re­gated along re­li­gious/sec­tar­ian lines. It is a most frag­ile peace. And it’s hard to dis­agree with Dun­can Mor­row, the Univer­sity of Ul­ster pol­i­tics lec­turer and con­flict res­o­lu­tion ex­pert. Mor­row re­cently told the All-Is­land Civic Di­a­logue on Brexit that North­ern Ire­land could not, in its present guise, sur­vive ei­ther a United Ire­land or a Hard Brexit, the great­est ex­is­ten­tial­ist cri­sis to hit the is­land of Ire­land, ar­guably since par­ti­tion.

Catholics and Protes­tants have lived cheek by jowl in North­ern Ire­land for more than 400 years and will con­tinue to do so for the next 400 years, de­spite the chasms be­tween ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Mal­lon, tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the Belfast poet, John He­witt, says we have gained some­thing from that in­evitable prox­im­ity.

“It is a hor­ror of vi­o­lence,” he told the Bar of Ire­land, be­fore tak­ing a side­swipe at Sinn Fein’s use of an Irish lan­guage act to stall talks in the North.

“It is my con­vic­tion that the hia­tus, the fail­ure, is more than just about the Irish lan­guage or any­thing else,” said Mal­lon. “And by the way, the Irish lan­guage doesn’t be­long to Sinn Fein or to any po­lit­i­cal party. It be­longs to the Irish peo­ple. Why should we al­low them [Sinn Fein] to act like a cud­gel to beat oth­ers around the head with?”

Mal­lon, who de­spite his age and frailty, is still an out­stand­ing and com­mand­ing or­a­tor, is an­gry at those who say the Good Fri­day Agree­ment has failed. “It has not failed,” he said, urg­ing that vic­tory, the kind that leads to an im­passe un­less ei­ther side can claim one does not — along with tro­phy hunt­ing and staged hand­shakes in front of in­ter­na­tional me­dia — be­long in North­ern Ire­land any­more.

“It [the GFA] has brought peace of a kind. And any­thing that brings peace of a kind is suc­cess­ful,” said Mal­lon, who ap­pealed for help to deal with what he de­scribes as the com­plex­i­ties of a sim­ple prob­lem. “Peo­ple have failed it. And they are con­tin­u­ing to fail it.”

As it slowly dawns on the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment that the prin­ci­ple of con­sent to Bri­tish sovereignty [North­ern Ire­land voted to re­main] and an open bor­der lie at the heart of the GFA, we des­per­ately need to re­turn to that land­mark doc­u­ment whose pre­am­ble — al­ways worth re-read­ing — re­minds us how in­ter­lock­ing and in­ter­de­pen­dent the lives and liveli­hoods of all on this is­land are. Brexit poses new threats to the GFA in­clud­ing a bor­der — hard or soft — that will play into the idle hands of ex­trem­ists.

The prospect of a re­turn to vi­o­lence, even of a mi­nor kind, is a price we sim­ply can­not af­ford to pay.

‘A bor­der — hard or soft — will play into hands of ex­trem­ists’

BENCH­ING: Trim­ble, Spring and Mal­lon were hon­oured

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