Observations from Agreement 25 conference in Belfast: no turning back

There is a slight detour this week to look at the political developments in Northern Ireland last week. On behalf of students today, TEFS asks the question, ‘What has the Good Friday Agreement done for us?’

The voices of reason are heard.

Last week saw the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that heralded a dramatic decrease in the tragic violence in Northern Ireland. The conference to commemorate this event was extremely well organised by my old university, Queen’s University Belfast, that I worked in for 37 years. Despite the cost, it appears to have been well worth the effort. The university is very pleased with £14 million worth of coverage across 49 countries for its £250,000 investment. But it goes deeper than that, and the fallout must wake up the current political leadership to what needs to be done urgently. Using the event to launch the ‘Clinton Scholarships’, to allow young people from deprived communities to study in the USA, shows the direction Queen’s University wants to take as it looks to the future. But sadly, some political leaders are looking to the past more than the future and are stifling progress. The voices of reason must be heard.

The existence of the conference alone emphasised the position the university takes on the benefits that can arise from the ‘peace dividend’.

These are some observations in no particular order but with some emphasis on what the future might hold for young people. Videos of the proceedings are all clustered at this site, ‘Agreement 25 ’ and are well worth exploring.

A recent House of Commons inquiry into the effectiveness of the institutions in Northern Ireland arising from the agreement also shines a light on the work still to be done

Ghosts and irony in full view.

The irony of the situation cannot have escaped the attention of those attending. The central part of the campus was surrounded by barriers and patrolled by heavily armed police. Strict searches and security measures were in place to enter the area and spotters (possibly also snipers) looked on from the top of the main venue, the Whitla Hall. If this is ‘peace’, then it is a very uneasy one.

Most of those in the hall would not remember, or even know, that they were sitting where an RUC police superintendent, William Fulton, was shot twice in front of hundreds of students whilst sitting a law exam back in May 1982.  He survived because of immediate first aid from staff. The eyewitness accounts accounts are accurate and shocking. The suspicion that someone in the university must have betrayed him turned out to be correct. Earlier in March 1982 there was an attempt on the life of the Lord Chief Justice, Robert Lowry, visiting the university nearby. Then in December 1983, Edgar Graham, law lecturer and unionist politician, was assassinated within the conference security zone, it had taken some time for the authorities to act.

Those victims did not have the benefit of the security arrangements of last week. But such things had become commonplace in Northern Ireland on both sides of the divide, and it took great courage from all the negotiators twenty-five years ago to offer the hand of peace in a febrile atmosphere of despair, revenge, and fear. Similar resolve and courage will be needed again.

Peace at last.

All surely agree that the agreement was a good thing after years of efforts by the Irish and UK governments. There was hope of a final peace. The conference acknowledged that the agreement process proper started with renewed efforts back in 1993 by the  Downing Street Declaration signed by the UK Prime Minister, John Major and Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.  This was a continuation of ongoing efforts by both governments that had been in play for many years.

Initial attempts to reach a resolution with the government of Northern Ireland by the Harold Wilson Labour government faltered in 1969. It took a lot of conflict for all to realise that the Irish government must be included and this emerged as a way forward.

Starting with the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, and leading to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, some progress was made.  The role of Margaret Thatcher and Garrett FitzGerald in 1985 was pivotal in achieving some success. FitzGerald was a powerful intellect steeped in Irish state history on both sides of the divide. The Thatcher government had survived an attempt to assassinate herself and her cabinet and disaster was narrowly avoided as ongoing talks accelerated. But, like the original Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921, that created Northern Ireland, they had all degenerated into division and bitter conflict.

So, the ‘Agreement’ in 1998 came as a breath of fresh air and offered genuine hope for a final peace. This created stability and renewed investment to generate jobs and a more secure future.  But after that, things became difficult and old divisions emerged. The shared government was not very effective when it sat or simply fell to disagreements and shut down. The result was a no government impasse that occupied over nine of the 25 years since and is currently the situation.

What did the Good Friday Agreement do for students?

Meanwhile, concern for students and universities descended into farce as the new power sharing government started to operate.  Student numbers were severely capped and support for students was inadequate. There has been stasis and a failure to act. The equivalent of a ‘third university’ is being exported to the rest of the UK or Ireland and this was not addressed as the rest of the UK and Ireland moved on (See TEFS 22nd February 2019 ‘Northern Ireland and the scandal of the ‘Third University’).  The cost of living support for students meant that only those from the well-off families could seriously consider studying outside Northern Ireland.

By 2011, a shortfall in university funding was creating a situation whereby the two universities would become insolvent within two years. This chaos and lack of understanding is clearly seen in the exchanges at the Stormont Committee for Employment and Learning on ‘Tuition Fees and Student Finance Arrangements’  (14th September 2011). It illustrates the financial mess that was achieved on a good day when a government was in place. The same problems persist, with universities having to cope with reduced funding.  Fees remain capped at £4,710 this year, at a level much lower than the rest of the UK,  and the state is not making up the difference as it does in Scotland where there are no fees for students.

The obvious solution might seem to be allowing a greater number of students, but disagreement on where to find the funds leads to stalemate. A cut in university funding in 2015 triggered the universities into deciding to reduce the numbers of home students themselves and letting staff go. I was in the middle of this tragedy unfolding and failed to see the sense in any of it.

By last year the logjam was reported as a ‘handbrake on the economy’ and Queen’s University may have to cut 1,500 student places by 2025 with a further15% funding cut planned. This will also mean more job cuts and may happen while the elected politicians take their pay but stay away and absolve themselves of any responsibility.

I suspect today’s students will not sit on the side-lines for much longer as they are badly let down. None of them were born when the agreement was signed and its not something they necessarily endorsed.

They should expect better than the current impasse and I don’t think this is the ‘Agreement’ that we voted for back in 1998.

Highlights: looking back, leadership and trust.

Two personalities towered over the events of 25 years ago and their perseverance paid off. One was George Mitchell and the other the late Mo Mowlam. They were simply trusted by both sides.

The main highlight of the conference was an astounding 45-minute speech from the former USA envoy, George Mitchell, who brokered the peace negotiations 25 years ago. A statue of him was unveiled outside the venue. His candid observations on the efforts made then offer a deep insight into the root of the problem today, that is trust. Back then, Mitchell listened and offered leadership. He was clearly one of two leaders who tried hard to make it work. Coming from a low-income background to a military career and then higher education, his experience and commitment to civil rights served him well.

All young people should watch and try to understand what is needed to regain trust one more. His speech is on Youtube is embedded here.

A force for good.

The other key leader and influencer, Dr Mo Mowlam, is sadly no longer with us, but her ghost seemed to watch over the event, pleading for the current political impasse to be resolved and everyone to get on with it.  Memories of her forceful, determined and blunt no-nonsense approach as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have stayed with us.  I like to think she acquired her blunt, head on approach from being brought up in my home city of Coventry. But that may be just fanciful thinking.  However, underneath her strident exterior was a talented academic with a broad perspective. She also understood the American view of the world well.  Her experience as a PhD student at the University of Iowa was pivotal to this perspective. She then lectured in political science at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and at Florida State University. She also worked  for a while in New York with Alvin Tofler, writer of the influential texts ‘Future Shock’ in 1970 and War and Anti-War in 1983 amongst others. This would have embedded a strong sense of how to influence, and cope with, rapid change.

George Mitchell received a standing ovation, and we can only imagine how Mo Mowlam would have been received if she were present.

The elephant in the room.

Alistair Campbell referred to Brexit as the ‘elephant in the room’. He was at the final negotiations at Stormont Castle and offered his own tribute to those involved with his bagpipe composition, a lament for those since gone. He received loud applause from the audience visibly moved by it.

But he was not to know that Brexit had made an appearance in discussions amongst the panel of political parties. Brexit had been described as a ‘torpedo’ that had hit the Good Friday Agreement and the audience seemed to agree. With the majority acknowledging that Brexit didn’t help the situation and that the latest Windsor agreement’ went some way to soften the impact, it was the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that stood out as a supporter of Brexit knowing full well that the consequence would lead to conflict over a ‘hard border’. 

Looking to the future.

One might expect the main political leaders of the day in Northern Ireland to seize the chance to offer hope for a better future. However, the panel session with them on the second day was a profound disappointment. The only highlights well received were the rousing contributions by the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long.

Long was strident and firm about was needed as she represented her own party in a panel session attended by all of the main Northern Ireland political parties. Calls for the Good Friday Agreement to be reformed so the DUP, as second largest party in the Assembly, would be excluded from a power sharing government while the other parties formed a coalition, met with support. But this is dangerous talk and might only widen the divisions and collapse the Agreement.

Emma Pengelly had drawn the short straw and was sent out to represent the position of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).  It didn’t go well. While others received warm applause, everything she had to say was met with stony silence.  She complained that the recent Windsor agreement on the EU border controls was done without consulting the DUP. But when she offered the idea that it was Brexit that was impeding progress on forming a government, Long thundered in with, “I think you could have seen that coming!” to loud applause.

Mitchell earlier, and pointedly, referred to having to deal with the so-called 100%ers.  This caused some unease as he offered the wisdom of compromise over the reckless approach of ‘my way or not at all’.  The current leadership might take heed of this.

Integrated or shared education.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was not so reticent when he made a speech looking to the future in the next 25 years. He stressed the need for ‘integrated education’. It was a bold move and may be a noble aim. But for some this will be provocative as educators have worked hard to achieve a more realistic ‘shared’ education.

This came out in the views of students attending a separate parallel event. They offered hope but also generated some disquiet.  Considerable efforts have been made by staff at Queen’s and elsewhere to promote the idea of a ‘shared’ education. This is perhaps the only realistic compromise possible in what is clearly a divided society that still persists today.  Integrated education is widespread in the rest of the UK, but it is certainly not universal.  The problem for Sunak’s aim is that some in Northern Ireland want a completely divided education system while many others are wedded to the idea of ‘shared education’ as a compromise.

The views of some school students in a video made by Queen’s University show this well (What does peace meant to you?)  There is a tacit acceptance of differences between people in Northern Ireland.  Yet, as a lecturer to many students in the university for over 35 years, I failed so see what those differences were. It is an institute that has fully inclusive and integrated education surely. Everyone was essentially the same, especially when it came to science and using a universal logic.  Until people accept that everyone is essentially the same in a fair and equal society, then integrated education hasn’t much of a chance. Differences are of lesser importance and often amplified to be something that barely exists underneath. But changing that is going to be hard.

Old wounds, the pot and the kettle.

Pengelly raised the problems of the past with a genuine concern about the attacks on her hometown.  She was, understandably, deeply affected by those events and deserves some sympathy. Sadly, this failed to convince the audience who did not seem to warm to her approach. There was a sharp intake of breath when she raised the old argument that they should not have negotiated with terrorists. But that could be seen as the ‘pot calling the kettle black’ in many eyes. This argument defied understanding in the context of the future and peace. 

Sure enough, cruel, and brutal terrorism came from extreme nationalists, but they too needed to sit down and talk with the same challenge in mind. The DUP led the threats and strikes that had torpedoed the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. During the 1980s, the DUP were closely linked to prescribed loyalist organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Setting up the ‘Ulster Resistance Movement’ (URM) in 1986 with thousands of recruits, scared everyone. This is the legacy of the DUP. One could reasonably argue that all parties were negotiating with terrorists. The UDA murder gangs that stalked Belfast in the 1980s were led by John McMichael. He was the father of Gary McMichael, leader of the Ulster Democratic Party who played a key role later in brokering a ceasefire while the DUP leadership prevaricated.

The Agreement faltered at the start.

It was the moderates in the nationalist SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party and their leaders, John Hume and David Trimble, who led the initiative from Northern Ireland. Their constitutional approach was extremely brave and brought with it many personal dangers.  But those trying to broker a ceasefire on the extremes of nationalism and unionism faced even more danger as they entered negotiations. 

With the agreement in place in April 1998, the people of Northern Ireland went to the polls to elect a government in June. They rewarded Trimble and Hume with a solid endorsement. The referendum had returned a 70% yes vote in Northern Ireland and a similar referendum in Ireland yielded an astounding 91% in favour of a change to the constitution and to relinquish their claim on Northern Ireland. Now, only a referendum in Northern Ireland could unify the island under one government.   

But the peace was brutally shattered by a car bomb in Omagh that killed 29 people and injured over 220 more. It was carried out by the Real IRA who opposed the agreement. The 25th Anniversary of that event is on the 15th of August this year and it serves as a sad reminder of what could be lost.

I heard of the tragedy as a went to breakfast in Tucson, Arizona.  I was at a meeting in a hotel with collaborators from the University of Arizona, New York State University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  One of them had just seen the breaking news as it happened, and they were all visibly shocked. I genuinely though that the Good Friday Agreement was to end that day and I would return to renewed conflict. Would our collaborators ever visit Belfast?

Instead, an uneasy peace continued as the people hardened their views on both sides. The inevitable result was a sharp polarisation of votes at the next assembly election in 2003, with Sinn Fein and the DUP rising to the top as the largest parties. The architects of the peace were side-lined as people voted against what they feared and not for what they hoped. It was pivotal in relegating consensus and increasing the division that persists today.

The Queen’s ‘bubble’.

After the conference, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said there was a “bubble” at the Agreement 25 conference at Queen’s University Belfast. He had earlier revealed that he had   ‘no regrets’ on walking out from the original Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Consistent with this idea was Pengelly who told the conference audience that they were not the voters supporting her party’s position. She was mainly right, but this inflamed an audience hoping for better. I know she lost two DUP supporters there and then as they were appalled by the recalcitrance on display.

The idea of the university existing in a ‘bubble’ and unaware of the outside is frankly nonsense. The university is part of the structure of an advanced society and offers a chance for a better future.

A missed opportunity.

The conference itself was divided into three days with a retrospective look at the negotiations in ‘REFLECT’ on day one. This was followed by more hopeful ‘RENEW’ and ‘REIMAGINE’ on the next two days.

But clearly missing in the main event was the views of younger people, especially students. I spoke with several students nearby on the campus who were going about their studies at the Medical Biology Centre. They knew of the past but showed little concern about the events nearby. The present and its challenges for them were more important.

Away from the conference in the city centre many young commuters went about their business as they came and went from the Great Victoria Street Station and Europa Bus Centre. They seemed like the people in Breughel’s Icarus, where passing ships and workers ply their trade, oblivious to Icarus burning and plunging unseen from the sky above.

Described in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ by Wystan Hugh Auden in 1938, we hope the Agreement is not also plunging to disaster as the people “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”.

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W H Auden 1938.

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