I was two when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found all the events marking the occasion immensely nostalgic, despite not living through it. As someone who cares about the place I’m from – and wants to make it better – it is so very apparent to me the massive footprint this Agreement has left on our society.
The commemorative events for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this month are a testament to how instrumental it has been in promoting peace, stability, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and acts as an internationally renowned model of transition into a post-conflict society. To this day, you can see how other countries have taken inspiration from our Agreement to begin to resolve conflict in their communities.
The anniversary ’celebrations’ are essential in marking such a distinguished occasion, but should proceed with an asterisk, or a footnote, if you prefer. When the history books are written, we should remember that parts of the Good Friday Agreement have not been implemented in full or at all. Establishing a Civic Forum and committing to Integrated Education are just two examples.
With that said, the spirit of which the Agreement was reached was never intended to be static, but to evolve as society transitions into a more peaceful and prosperous one. It was always going to be an incremental process.
The “25 Years” headlines provide a unique opportunity to pay homage to those who got us here, reaffirm those principles that need work, and lay out the foundations for our future.
The terms of the Good Friday Agreement commit to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is rightfully seen as crucial for maintaining peace and stability. Any visible signs of a border would also be immensely symbolic, considering the impact and hard work of the European Union on ensuring peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Between funding for community development projects, cross-border cooperation initiatives, and programs aimed at promoting social inclusion and addressing the legacy of the conflict, there has been a notable investment, interest and support from the EU in my home. The EU also helped to facilitate the Agreement’s implementation by providing technical and financial support for establishing new institutions, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council.
These are all the Agreement’s achievements, and many aspects have been lived out. The establishment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which achieves a generally positive approval rating from the public, through to visible landmarks like peace walls that have been reduced or removed by two-thirds. Fatalities relating to the conflict have reduced from 480 in 1972 to 1 in 2022. There is no doubt that these are the by-products of the Agreement and should be celebrated.
The indirect consequences are also notable. The Europa Hotel opened in 1971 and was one of the only hotels in Belfast City Centre, which is now in stark contrast to the over 3,500 hotel rooms in Belfast today. The hotel was bombed 36 times during the Troubles and remained open throughout the conflict, subsequently becoming a symbol of resilience and endurance for the people of Belfast.
The increase in hotel capacity correlates with the vast growth of visitors to our city. One prime example is the significant increase in cruise ship numbers over the last three decades. According to a report by Cruise Belfast, the number of cruise ships visiting the port increased from just 5 in 1996 to over 170 in 2023. In that same timeframe, cruise visitors have skyrocketed from 8,000 to over 350,000.
Only after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended the conflict, could tourism in Belfast and Northern Ireland begin to prosper. In the years since, the region has become a popular tourist destination, with visitors from across the world attracted by our rich history, stunning landscapes, and vibrant culture.
With Belfast’s influx of visitors and revived streets, you would be forgiven for forgetting about Northern Ireland’s political impasse. Stormont has been in operation for less than 60 per cent of the time since power-sharing began, and just like you, we are worried about things like health, education and the cost of living, but we don’t have a functioning government to make decisions. We don’t have a sitting Assembly, and the root cause of that is the vote to leave the European Union.
The Civic Forum of Northern Ireland, another component of the Good Friday Agreement, last met in 2002. This discussion is timely with the publication of a report from Ulster University that estimates the cost of division and duplication of educational services in Northern Ireland at approximately £600,000 a day, or over £4m a week. The Good Friday Agreement enshrines the commitment to Integrated Education and contains a specific pledge “to facilitate and encourage integrated education”. The Department of Education has never established an integrated school, and integrated schools represent just 7.8% of the school estate in Northern Ireland. There is an appetite, particularly with those born post the Good Friday Agreement, to see the pace of change radically improve.
There are multiple components that the Good Friday Agreement was not designed to solve. The Good Friday Agreement doesn’t tackle legacy nor provide a framework or solution for unexpected political, social or economic events such as the decision to leave the European Union.
On the 31st of March – just days before these Good Friday Agreement anniversary celebrations – funding provided by the European Social Fund (ESF) ceased. The UK Government had promised to ensure there wouldn’t be an impasse of security, but they only confirmed they would fill that deficit in the same week the funding was lost. This was too late for many non-profits and charity groups, and we lost a swathe of them. The ESF has provided significant support to Northern Ireland over the years, helping to address social and economic issues in the region, such as promoting social inclusion, tackling poverty and inequality, and supporting disadvantaged and marginalised communities. This has included programs focused on improving access to education and training for disadvantaged groups, providing support for refugees and asylum seekers, and promoting community development and cohesion.
Despite our challenges – and we have plenty – my home punches above its weight in the world arena, whether our sportsmanship, technological innovation, or hospitality. We are proud people. The Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary has been a nostalgia trip in how far we’ve come – but we also need to reflect on how far we need to go.
Therefore, this is the prime opportunity to reaffirm some of those commitments we made 25 years ago and work to mitigate the risks that evolved with the feature of time. It’s 2023 – and now is the first window of opportunity we’ve seen in reaching an agreement on Brexit for Northern Ireland in respect of the ‘Windsor Framework’. That’s seven years since the vote to leave the EU.
That time lapse speaks to the complexity and nuances coming from this little place that is Northern Ireland. Although there is a window of optimism that our economic stability could be affirmed through the Windsor Framework, we have no idea how the wider political, economic and social structures will impact Northern Ireland in the medium to long term as we continue on this ever-longing process of leaving the European Union.
The degree of hope, positivity and ambition is stronger than ever, but we need stability.
As well as this month marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it’s also 111 years since Titanic’s maiden voyage. There’s a distinctive contrast and similarity in both. 100 years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we were a small, industrial city, but we were driven by big ambition. We played a huge part in the shipbuilding, tobacco and linen industry and by the late 1800s, Belfast was truly a global city with a major role on the world stage.
That lapsed with the rise of conflict in our communities, and Brexit risks repeating that lapse. But now, 25 years on from that historic Agreement and 100 years on from when Titanic left our shores, that same hope, ambition and energy for prosperity and an international outlook is cumulating for the next 25 – and 100 – years ahead.
The way ahead isn’t always easy in the way that real life isn’t always easy. It will take hard work, but we’ve done it before. It’s up to all of us now to grasp that opportunity and unleash Northern Ireland’s full potential because by the time we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I, for one, am determined to look back and say that I did my bit to get there.
You can watch my discussion with the European Movement here.
Read more from me in my piece in the Independent.
- Michael Lynch