(The following address was delivered by Declan Kearney at the Desmond Greaves Summer School).
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 represented a framework of principles and political structures that helped embed conflict resolution and the fledgling Irish Peace Process.
It opened a democratic road forward and established the political process to resolve the circumstances that had perpetuated the conflict on the island, and particularly in the north.
The political and civic structures proposed by the GFA were architecture to entrench and manage the process of democratic change, which was required in the 6 counties.
It was not a republican document, but it did include mechanisms and political dynamics to support the achievement of a national democracy on the island; and made specific provision for a Border Poll in that regard.
It was a political compromise between opponents, and conferred an absolute responsibility on both the British and Irish governments to ensure its implementation as a binding international agreement.
Its historic and strategic significance was in recognising that the status quo had failed Irish society, and that shaping the future would depend upon the management of change through democratic compromise and agreement.
That is why the GFA constituted a watershed with regard to the practice of political relations on the island, and between Ireland and Britain.
Nothing could or would ever remain the same.
The GFA concretised the Irish Peace Process and made it irreversible.
While the DUP orchestrated opposition to the Agreement and its implementation, mixed messages were issued by the UUP.
Neither the Peace Process nor the phase of politics begun by the GFA was positively embraced by political unionism.
Constructive leadership was not demonstrated by these parties within their own constituency.
Compromise and change were presented in zero sum terms.
Indeed many within the broader popular unionist section of the community who did speak out in favour were publicly criticised, or ostracised.
From the outset political unionism failed to unanimously and unequivocally support the GFA principles and process, and significant sections have remained deeply hostile to power sharing and partnership government with republicans, and particularly Sinn Féin ever since.
Despite all of that the Peace Process moved forward; demilitarisation occurred on all sides; prisoner releases were agreed; a new beginning to policing and reform of the justice system were taken forward; the new political institutions began to function in tandem with all-Ireland bodies; and, equality legislation and the equality agenda became mainstreamed.
In time the late Ian Paisley led the DUP into government, to share joint office with Sinn Féin.
Yet critical fault lines remained, specifically in the failure to deal with the legacy of the past; secure parity of esteem; mutual respect; eradicate sectarian attitudes and behaviour, and sectarian segregation; and the promotion of a reconciliation process. All of these issues, and others, have combined to challenge the political process.
The continued failure and opposition to tackle these realities was forcefully illustrated with the refusal by political unionism to accept the Haass compromise proposals last January; and more recently when the unionist parties staged a walkout from a new round of talks to deal with the Haass agenda in protest at the Parades Commission decision on the Orange march at Ardoyne.
Instead political unionism has been emboldened in their intransigence towards these issues by the British Government’s refusal to endorse the Haass package.
And this current political deadlock has been compounded by the failure of both the Irish and British Governments to implement core elements of the GFA itself, and subsequent agreements made at Weston Park, St Andrew’s, and Hillsborough Castle.
The consequence has been that the political process has remained constantly fragile throughout.
In turn the potential for developing authentic reconciliation has been undermined and held back.
Both governments have stepped back from their responsibilities as co-guarantors of the GFA.
The Irish Government has been passive and semi-detached.
Since Cameron’s Conservative Party took power four years ago this British Government’s Irish policy has become markedly pro-unionist, and increasingly resembles the explicitly partisan nature of John Major’s government policy in the mid-1990s.
During the last two years political instability in the north has intensified due to the primacy of bad leadership in unionism. An unfolding crisis within political unionism; has been exacerbated by sectarian electoral competition and cooperation among unionist politicians and paramilitaries.
The current situation stems back to the marching season of 2012, the subsequent street disturbances orchestrated by unionist paramilitaries from the UVF and UDA that summer and autumn, and then the refusal of the DUP and UUP to respect the democratic decision of Belfast City Council to compromise on flying the union flag.
That led directly to months of street violence, and attacks on the Alliance Party, Catholic homes, the PSNI, and threats against Sinn Féin members.
Later in August 2013 Peter Robinson reneged on the Programme for Government decision to develop the Maze/Long Kesh site. His announcement was made in a letter sent to DUP members from his summer holiday in Florida. He made no contact with Martin McGuinness.
That approach has increasingly defined the nature of DUP participation in the political institutions, within the Executive, and oFM/dFM.
A renewed toxic, sectarian incivility has infected the political atmosphere of the Assembly itself.
The DUP and UUP may well have bought into the political institutions in terms of electoral influence, salaries, and status, but that does not extend to embracing a genuine willingness to share power with republicans, support for real partnership government, the development of north/south cooperation, mutual respect, parity of esteem, or reconciliation.
The contemporary agenda of unionism has been set by Orange and unionist extremists. Political unionism has shifted to the right, adopted a strategy of political blockage, and acquiesced in the face of escalating sectarianism and growing racism across the 6 counties.
All this has inevitably undermined the credibility of the Executive and Assembly, and fettered the potential of these institutions to work as delivery mechanisms for sufficient economic and social change.
Since the May elections all sections of political unionism, including the explicitly anti-Agreement TUV, and those parties linked to the UDA and UVF, have formed a pan-unionist coalition, ostensibly to oppose the Parades Commission, and its decision on the Ardoyne Orange march. They also want generalised non-regulation of Orange parades.
An anti-Good Friday Agreement axis now exists within unionism, aimed at subverting the GFA, principles and process.
This anti-Agreement axis is against equality, democratic compromise, and management of continued change in northern society. Its agenda is to turn back the clock.
There is a right wing retreat by political unionism into old Orange State ideology.
It is being driven by a significant minority of extremists.
Let me spell out what that means. This includes key members of the DUP’s officer team, and individuals in that party’s Assembly and Westminster groups; the TUV; UKIP; and other figures in the Orange Order, and UVF and UDA.
The ascendancy of this anti-Agreement axis, the pro-unionist position of the NIO, and refusal of the British Government to fulfil its commitments, now constitute the most serious threat to the viability of the political institutions.
As a result power sharing and partnership government are being directly undermined.
All the indications suggest the DUP leadership is resigned to ‘free-wheeling’ into a crash of the political institutions because they cannot have things their own way, and are in thrall to the most negative sections of the party.
Peter Robinson’s call for a new negotiation is code for the removal of the safeguards and protections enshrined by the GFA, and other Agreements.
The attempt to explain away what is happening as a disagreement over welfare cuts is preposterous.
The leadership and political resolve clearly does not exist within political unionism to face down the extremists, and make power sharing or partnership government work.
So the default position has become stasis, and to try and turn the clock backwards.
In the last six months, the DUP leadership has already threatened to bring down the institutions over ‘On The Runs’; the Parades Commission decision to restrict Orange marches at Ardoyne in July; and, over Welfare cuts.
However, the recklessness and irresponsibility of the political unionist leaderships are being encouraged by the failure of the British Government to intervene and stop the growing political stasis.
It has repeatedly shown its willingness to capitulate, and unwillingness to stand up to unionist threats and intransigence.
More of that was recently evidenced in Theresa Villiers’ speech at the British-Irish Association last weekend.
And when Charlie Flanagan, in his Sunday Independent interview sought to caricature the northern impasse as a failure by parties to deliver basic services, he completely ignores the reality that the democratic core of the Good Friday Agreement is now being hollowed out by an energised anti-Agreement axis.
The existing political impasse contains all the potential to develop into a full crisis. It is being deepened by the hands-off attitude of both the British and Irish Governments towards the unfinished business of the GFA, Weston Park, and the St. Andrews and Hillsborough Castle agreements.
Despite the narrative of the British and Irish governments the north is not a settled issue.
The fact is the political process is now in serious trouble.
This reality is further compounded by Theresa Villiers’ consideration of a new concession to unionist demands for an inquiry into the Parades Commission decision on Ardoyne, and the British Government’s draconian welfare cuts against the working poor and most vulnerable.
To repeat, welfare cuts is a line, which Sinn Féin will not cross, because it is a denial of social justice, and is bad economics.
Progressive, democratic and labour opinion should oppose the introduction of this Thatcherite agenda by the Conservatives, and now supported by all shades of political unionism.
However, I do not believe the lurch to the right by the unionist parties is representative of wider unionist and Protestant opinion.
There is a correlation between this and political unionism’s decision to support welfare cuts and abandon any defence of the social and economic needs of the disadvantaged citizens these parties purport to represent.
So, the political landscape of the north is being defined by not only by a polarisation between pro and anti-Agreement positions, but a stark ideological division on socio economic issues, and the role of government to protect those least able to look after themselves.
Contrary to the stated purpose of Peter Robinson’s intervention there is no evidence that the British Government, the NIO, or political unionism is open to a serious process of negotiation on all the critical and outstanding issues.
Indeed we should allow that this is simply an extension of the time buying exercise, which the DUP used to get them through the European election campaign. A remarkably similar scenario is now shaping up with the Westminster elections set for next May.
If this downward political spiral continues the new cycle of elections will fuel the extremes in unionism and Orangeism.
In that context the probability grows this deep impasse will lead to a serious political vacuum. That is why Gerry Adams said that the political process now faces its greatest challenge since the GFA negotiations in 1998.
A carnival of reaction is underway against the ongoing change begun by the GFA. Its purpose is to minimise change, and then maximise the delay for change happening.
That must not be allowed to succeed.
The present political situation challenges everyone who aspires to political stability, progress, reconciliation, and supports the GFA, and other agreements.
Widespread disappointment exists towards the political institutions. There is real concern about the political instability, and fear in relation to the upsurge in sectarianism, and racism.
The current political situation is now both untenable and unsustainable.
In this context there’s an imperative on all strands of national, democratic and progressive opinion north and south to mobilise in support of a pro-Agreement axis.
Defending the integrity of the GFA principles and process should be a cross-party, cross-community, non-sectarian and democratic objective.
The Irish and British Governments, with diplomatic support from the US administration must become focussed upon that.
An immediate tri-lateral intervention should be taken by the three governments to restore political stability in the process, open new negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues, and address the need for an economic reconstruction plan
These are the foundations essential for the development of reconciliation.
Make no mistake about the approach required.
It is the political model and momentum originally used to facilitate the GFA negotiations, and subsequent agreements, which must be urgently redeployed.
There is no alternative to that approach.
Any approach to negotiations, which starts in reverse, or seeks to narrow and reduce the talks’ agenda, or panders to threats and preconditions will fail.
If political unionism is unwilling to engage positively in new talks based upon acceptance of GFA principles, then the required momentum must be applied by the Irish and British Governments to ensure that all outstanding commitments are finally implemented; and, that political structures are in set place to entrench the gains of the peace and political processes to date.
This much is clear. New negotiations are now both essential and inevitable.
But it is not for political unionism to set or dictate the terms or conditions and scope of a new talks process on the basis of what it wants.
That will not be happening.
The GFA was borne out of engagement and dialogue, and that has been the catalyst for this phase of the Irish peace process.
Sixteen years on, the focus of the next phase must be the development of reconciliation.
Despite the recriminations, there is widespread acceptance of the need for reconciliation and healing. That too will require widespread engagement and dialogue to ensure that past political failure is not recycled and passed on to the next generation.
There is no alternative to, or any avoidance of the need for engagement, dialogue, and visionary leadership.
That is the legacy of the GFA today and will be the key to creating an agreed, multi-cultural, united Ireland.