26 April 2023

Reflections on 25 years post Agreement

Over the past number of weeks I, like many, have had the opportunity to reflect on what the Belfast Good Friday Agreement means in modern-day Northern Ireland 25 years after its signing.   

I have had the privilege of attending various events with a specific focus on the needs of victims and survivors; be they practical, emotional or spiritual.

Attending the three-day Agreement 25 Conference at Queens University was a unique opportunity to engage with so many people on what is called to mind when we think back on the Agreement.  I found the theme ‘Reflect, Renew, Re-imagine’, to be a grounding framework when thinking… where do we go from here?

I agree with many who say that the Belfast Good Friday Agreement gave us a relative peace. Upheld in the most difficult of circumstances, it undoubtedly saved many lives. It led to stronger equality legislation, it has, in general, reduced a culture of heightened fear of a loved one walking out the door and potentially being taken by violence. Therefore, what the peace process has given us so far is a gift, in this sense.

By April 1998, I was living and working in Cambridge. My eldest daughter was born there before the successful peace negotiations took place, and before then, I didn’t envision myself returning to Northern Ireland to raise a family. But I am happy to say that my next three daughters were born in Northern Ireland, thankfully raised here at home, in our relative peace.

1998 was a turning point for us all, whether we knew it at the time or not. With the path to peace having endured many failed attempts and broken ceasefires, there was certainly a sense of both anticipatory joy and anxiety amongst the population. A sense of…is it true? Can we really make this happen? But its lasting impact was hope in the darkness.

We must also remember the difficult asks made of victims and survivors to accept terms of the Agreement. Terms such as prisoner releases were, as many victims have said, ‘a hard pill to swallow’ but essential to the ratification of the Agreement.

We must ensure that what they sacrificed for peace is never forgotten but that it inspires us to meet them with the same courage to fight for their needs and rights.

Since taking up this post last May, I have become aware of just how important acknowledgement, truth, justice and reconciliation are to the wellbeing of victims and survivors in the aftermath of conflict related trauma, but it is clear to me that not enough has been done in these areas.

Victims deserve truth and the option to seek justice. It should be as simple as that.

However, the Legacy Bill proposed by Conservatives and progressing through the House of Lords will take this basic human right away to the great detriment of victims and survivors.  We must make provisions to tackle this deep injustice and understand what impact this will have on victims’ rights.

Acknowledgement of victims and survivors is something that people can often look away from as it is such a complex and nuanced issue. But we must be willing to put in the work to come to the most wide-reaching means of appropriately acknowledging victims’ experiences.

Despite huge strides made in maintaining peace, there are still many who glorify and participate in a culture of sectarian violence.

A recent Belfast Telegraph article revealed that 3,260 people – including a child aged as young as nine – have been the victims of paramilitary attacks since the Good Friday Agreement.

Violence did not end in its entirety in 1998 and we should not be complacent about that fact. We have a long way to go in ending paramilitary violence and we owe it to our victims, survivors and young people to make Northern Ireland a society rid of violence and sectarianism.

Peacebuilding and reconciliation are ongoing processes. We mustn’t think of them as a ‘delivered and done’ threshold that we cross. They require consistency, ongoing communication and a wish to maintain peace within and despite difference. We must be motivated to work on reconciliation with the guiding principle of ‘never again’.

Now that the spotlight is off Northern Ireland on the world stage, in many ways we are back to the position we found ourselves before; no Assembly, no budget and cuts to services seemingly being announced every day.

These issues are difficult, but they need to be addressed.

Twenty-five years ago we achieved the seemingly impossible and as a result, Northern Ireland became a place of hope.

So, in the spirit of Reflect, Renew and Reimagine let us ask ourselves ‘What am I doing to keep that hope burning? How am I making the future of Northern Ireland better for generations to come?’

For such a small part of the world, the past few weeks reminds us that we have some powerful friends in the international arena willing us on to succeed.

As I near the end of my first year in my post as Commissioner, this period of reflection has filled me with a renewed commitment to my own part to play in achieving more for victims and survivors.

They have told us what they need, and it’s up to us not only to listen, but to act. As Senator George Mitchell said at the Agreement 25 Conference; “Within the word impossible is embedded the word ‘possible’. We need people who believe, who know that the possible exists within the impossible.”

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