Agreement has done little for the people

Posted By: April 14, 2018

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, April 14, 2018

If, as we were told this week, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was wonderful, why are a quarter of a million people [in Northern Ireland] waiting for a first hospital appointment with a consultant?

If it was such an historic success, why are most of our schools bankrupt,  and if it represented a breakthrough, why are 370,000 people here still in poverty, including 110,000 children?

Don’t be silly, you say, the GFA was not about that sort of thing. (“That sort of thing” presumably means the daily lives of ordinary people.)

Oh no, you say, this was history made by presidents, prime ministers, taoisigh, paramilitary generals and political leaders, who created a new era of understanding, tolerance and co-operation. (You forgot to mention Bono, but that is something in your favor.)

So why are we being ruled from Westminster, which is where we were before the agreement? Why have the SDLP and the UUP, the two moderate parties which drove the GFA, been electorally wiped out by more extreme parties?

Why are we a more divided society than ever and why are we subsidising food for 90 MLAs at Stormont, when they can claim about £100,000 annually in salary and expenses for doing nothing? Meanwhile, 14,000 children here rely on food banks to stave off hunger.

Ah but, you say, one of these days the A greement will work. We must re-dedicate ourselves to the platitudes and clichés of reaching out and going the extra mile.

Sadly, you do not have a point, because even if Stormont were resurrected tomorrow, we would merely return to that same dysfunctional government which brought political, social and economic failure.

So where did it all go wrong and what exactly were the great and the good celebrating in Belfast this week? (They were really at a wake, but everyone was mannerly enough to pretend that the deceased was not dead.)

The GFA was based on several major myths, all of which failed to survive the cold reality of northern politics. The first was that a sectarian war could be resolved by institutionalised sectarian politics.

Two hundred years earlier, in the 1798 rebellion, Protestants and Catholics fought together for Irish independence and economic equality. The 1998 GFA stipulated that Protestants and Catholics should accept British rule and its legitimacy and, for the first time, the two religions would be classified as two different nations.

So, while the 1921 Treaty partitioned Ireland, the GFA partitioned the north – not just on the map, as evidenced by our gerrymandered local government system, but in the minds of people. (Two centuries after his death, Wolfe Tone was probably very glad he was dead.) The GFA also shelved Irish independence and ignored economic inequality.

The second myth was that Britain was a disinterested observer of events here. The agreement ignored its role in fostering sectarian division, a practice which survives today in Theresa May’s alliance with the DUP.

The third myth was that a fudged agreement on constitutional issues did not need a parallel programme of social and economic investment, which could also be used to promote normal politics. The Troubles began in a welfare state and ended under a Thatcherite government, but no one around the Agreement table asked what type of society we should create.

By ignoring any reference to social or economic policy, they all accepted Thatcherism by default, when what we needed was massive state investment. So the Stormont parties moved from power-sharing to patronage-sharing, as evidenced by the unusual allocation process for the £80 million Social Investment Fund. Power sharing disadvantaged the powerless.

The final myth was that a military settlement between the British and the IRA could be woven into a model of government. As a result, the GFA advocated that almost all assembly parties should be in government, which left no parliamentary opposition. Parties could do what they wanted, which laid the foundation for Stormont’s questionable behavior from RHI to dodgy expenses claims.

That model of government was indeed genius, as Bill Clinton said this week, but not the way he meant it. Unlike Bill, and the others who stayed for one day, we have had to endure two decades of shabby government.

The GFA’s social legacy is that our public services have been significantly damaged since 1998 and the welfare cuts by Sinn Féin and the DUP have left our most vulnerable much worse off.

Its constitutional legacy is acceptance of the legitimacy of Britain’s political ownership of The North. Without that legacy, Brexit would present us with fewer challenges.