A gloom has settled on Northern Ireland. After 13 months of negotiations to restore a power-sharing government, there is still no prospect of agreement. The deal-breaker is Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish Language Act to protect and promote the language. The Democratic Unionist Party opposes this, claiming it would threaten British identity in Northern Ireland.
Some say the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is dead. Dismay and anger are widespread as overstretched public services languish rudderless. But there are still reasons to be optimistic. Here are five:
1. The agreement has been ‘dead’ before
Many times, in fact. Power sharing was declared dead in 1999 when the UUP would not form an executive and again in October 2002, when the executive collapsed after allegations of Sinn Féin spying at Stormont. It was dead in November 2003 when the anti-agreement DUP became the largest party, and in December 2004, when DUP-Sinn Féin talks on restoring power-sharing failed. The Good Friday Agreement has a habit of resurrection.
2. Unionists usually come around eventually
Sharing power with the moderate nationalists of the SDLP, or the hard-line nationalists of Sinn Féin, devolving policing and justice powers, and North-South cooperation were all once anathema to the DUP. Now they are uncontroversial. For many unionists, the Irish language issue came out of the blue a year ago. Since then, DUP leader Arlene Foster and others have been involved in genuine debate and engagement on this topic. It appears that an agreement may even have been reached. That’s progress, even if it hasn’t come to fruition just yet.
3. Done deals are built on past failures
The Good Friday negotiations followed on from the failed Brooke-Mayhew talks in the early 1990s. The 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement on devolution was preceded by failed talks in late 2004. The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 followed the inconclusive Haass-O’Sullivan process a year earlier. The past 13 months trying to work out a deal are unlikely to be in vain. They may well have prepared the ground for an eventual accommodation.
4. Harder problems have been solved
The Irish Language Act is controversial but it’s a relatively minor matter compared to some of the other hurdles that have been cleared by Northern Ireland’s leaders. Disarmament, police reform, agreeing power-sharing structures, devolving policing and justice have all been faced and resolved. Measures to deal with the toxic and emotive legacy of the conflict are not yet implemented, but the parties, remarkably, reached a measure of consensus on this issue in the Stormont House Agreement.
5. Politics in many – surely most – countries is dysfunctional
The Northern Irish predilection to view politics there as uniquely bad is still alive and well. But it is, empirically, nonsense. Even placid little Iceland is not immune to scandal. In the past year, I have met with policy makers from Colombia, Israel, Georgia, Palestine, South Korea and Turkey who were visiting Northern Ireland to understand the peace process. They would love to have Northern Ireland’s problems.
All parties say they want devolution and all parties accept power sharing in principle. No other means of governing Northern Ireland than the 1998 Agreement can command broad consensus. Perhaps the upcoming 20th anniversary can reignite the risk-taking leadership and bold imagination that got Northern Ireland to where it is today. Despair will not take us anywhere.