By Moore Holmes
The Belfast Agreement is somewhat similar to the ill-fated venture of the great Titanic. What began with so much hope and enthusiasm, stern in the belief that it would pave a new way into the future, now finds itself fatally wounded, perilously sinking and destined to end up lying at the bottom of the ocean.
We were promised our Good Friday commitment would bring the peace our country craved and charter a new reconciled course for Northern Ireland. While sectarian violence has gratefully declined, and in terms of security the Belfast Agreement has been a welcome success, our country remains socially and politically divided and reconciliation seems no closer than the shores of America to our famous sunken ship.
It is hard to determine what the iceberg in this metaphor could be, not because I am short of any takers, but mostly because there is such an extensive list of problems which are contributing to the demise of the Belfast Agreement. It would be more accurate to speak of a minefield of icebergs striking our ship rather than a singular fatal blow.
One of those icebergs is mandatory coalition. The intransigence of political parties in tandem with mandatory coalition has accumulated in the politics of ransom, and nearly two years without a functioning executive.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont boycott until the DUP concede equal marriage and an Irish language act is a blatant effort to exploit the leverage afforded to them by mandatory coalition. Although making the most of your hand is to be expected in politics, it is somewhat bemusing to hear Sinn Fein defend those institutions when they are responsible for bringing them into disrepute. It’s only natural people will look for alternatives when the institutions are exploited in the manner they have been.
Unfortunately, the alternatives have not been explored long or loud enough. In fact, that a conversation about reforming mandatory coalition remains on the fringes only proves how religiously, and in some respects blindly, committed to the Belfast Agreement we really are.
Perhaps voluntary coalition, or a ‘coalition of the willing’ as it has been described would be a more prosperous path. It would certainly put an end to our current impasse and nullify the ransom politics which have dominated NI.
Or even that awful concept of majority rule could be a new way forward. Especially considering the more equally weighted electoral results over recent years. Majority Rule would pose challenges and concerns to both Unionists and Nationalists, but surely it should be the hopeful trajectory of our political office – what harm is there in talking about how we can work towards it?
The point is that there are other ways of doing things, yet we refuse to entertain them and remain rigidly committed to a certain format that has proven painfully ineffective.
When Arlene Foster said that the Belfast Agreement was far from ‘sacrosanct,’ it was like she had blown up a hospital. Politicians and commentators came out in their droves on social media and news outlets condemning her as if the First Minister had uttered a heresy never to be spoken.
It is this sort of fervent aggressive defence against an otherwise rational comment regarding our 20-year-old agreement that should make us all pause with concern. How can we expect to move forward toward better systems of government and more effective means of politics if it is deemed ludicrous to criticise or question the Belfast Agreement? Is there another political document out there that has such a privileged position? Is it wise to grant it a royal pardon?
Unlike the Titanic, there was a general consensus that the Belfast Agreement was far fromt perfect but it was a starting point to a new future. Attempts have been made, albeit controversially, to modify some it its imperfections through the St Andrews and Stormont House Agreements.
We must remind ourselves of the flawed nature of the Belfast Agreement, and be open and honest about positive ways forward that as a country and society we can unite behind. Or better still, consider a new or reformed political process which is primarily workable and thus can unite the country.
The Belfast Agreement has collided with its iceberg and now the ship is sinking. Now is the time to discuss a new way forward and investigate which modifications or alternatives should be embraced, rather than kidding ourselves that the Belfast Agreement should be unsinkable.
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