By Lydia O’Kane
On April 10, 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement ushered in a new era of peaceful co-existence in Northern Ireland after thirty years of violence known as “the Troubles.”
The buildings at Stormont became a familiar location to many over that period as the British and Irish governments and eight political parties worked to formulate the Accord.
The Agreement was unanimously approved by voters on the island of Ireland in two referendums just a month after it’s signing, and paved the way for Northern Ireland's current devolved system of government.
It also led to the creation of a number of institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Wave of violence
The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement remains an important milestone in Northern Ireland’s history, but the violence that has unfolded in Belfast and elsewhere over the past 12 days has laid bare, once again, the fragile nature of peace.
Northern Ireland’s darkest days claimed over 3,500 lives, but over the last twenty-three years, young people here have been fortunate enough to grow up against a backdrop of peace, thanks to this landmark Accord.
However, over recent nights on the streets of this city, it is teenagers, some as young as thirteen, that have been involved in the unrest.
Bishop Donal McKeown lived through thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland; now the Bishop of Derry, he says he feels both sadness and compassion, pointing out that it is always the poorer areas that suffer. But he also asks the question about who’s benefiting from these people rioting on the streets. “There are always others who are happy for this to be going on,” he says, “who never get their hands dirty… by using young people of 12 and 14 and 16 to scream and shout so that the London government or the Dublin government get a message.”
“There will be peace in places”, he adds, “if the powerful and the strong want there to be peace.”
Another question that needs to be asked, the Bishop says, is “how we as civic leaders and as Church leaders help those communities to get up on their feet and be able to deal with the problems that they face in a way that enables their young people to look forward to the future rather than just be dragged back to the past.”
Elements of the Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement was based on three “strands” which were deemed essential to the future of Northern Ireland. The first was the internal strand which focused on local parties working together; another was the North-South strand which involved the role of the Irish Government. The third element was the East-West strand between the British and Irish Governments.
Dwelling on these three key areas of the Accord, Bishop McKeown says it’s up to politicians at the Stormont parliament to show a good example and be a model of good relations. He also points out that there’s a real feeling, especially in Loyalist and working class areas, that the British East-West dimension has “forgotten about Northern Ireland; has forgotten about those who were told to vote for Brexit and now feel betrayed by it.”
The Bishop is also keen to stress that unless a real interest in Northern Ireland is shown by politicians who encompass all these strands, “there’s no sense asking 16 year olds on the ground to be models of good behaviour.”
Society and its impact
Addressing the scenes of young people rioting on the streets of Belfast in recent days, Bishop McKeown expresses extreme concern, but he also highlights that often times what they are seeing through films, computer games and political discourses is all about “smashing the awful enemy and about venting your rage."
“If that is the mindset that is really put before so many young people," he stresses, "why on earth wouldn’t we think that’s the way to act in real life on the ground?” Therefore, he adds, “part of our job as Churches is to challenge the powerful here rather than just condemning the little ones and the poor, who have been led astray, of course, but who have been given very bad role models of how to solve problems.”
Memories of the “the Troubles”
For many people in Northern Ireland, the memories of attacks and killings are still vivid, and having experienced relative peace over the last 20 years, the majority here don’t want to go back to the days of bullets and bombs. Bishop McKeown acknowledges that this current unrest will bring back very painful memories of thirty years of violence, brutality and loss. “It’s the poor, the workings class areas and the unemployment areas who always suffer the most in terms of (A) loss of life and (B) doing time in jail,” he says.
With that in mind, the Bishop emphasizes that from a Church perspective, awkward prophetic questions need to be asked, “to ensure that it’s not yet again the poorer areas that are further disadvantaged.”
As tensions remain, Church leaders on Friday responded to the recent violence by holding an ecumenical service and walking close to the interface between the Springfield Road and Shankill Road; scenes of days of disturbances.