There is a human rights and equality crisis in this society and it is one of the reasons why we are where we are. It remains a reasonable expectation that the Good Friday Agreement would deliver more than simply ‘relatively stable’ power-sharing government. The transformative dimensions were lost along the way, and the political system could not take the weight of that ongoing implementation failure. Although they are not the only matters to be resolved, a comprehensive and credible way forward might quickly alter the current picture. We have already witnessed steps to make progress on equal marriage and women’s rights. Advances led from here, and then taken forward at Westminster. This is testament to an effective activist culture that has shown remarkable resilience.
There is much unfinished business, and this will always be a continuing conversation. The momentum for change is growing and robust. This is now a discussion about unlocking the potential of a place what wants transformation and the significance of basic honesty about the forces that are standing in the way of reform. The climate is not a conducive one and that only makes the dedication and persistence even more admirable.
As a contribution to this dialogue, these two themes seem relevant.
Firstly, this region is saturated with the symbolism and imagery of one community to a quite staggering degree. A casual stroll around Belfast, or interaction with many of the key public institutions, will often confirm that. It should not be contentious to state what is a basic fact. For reasons that are well known, there is structural and systemic disrespect for Irish identity and towards Irish citizens. Parity of esteem and equal treatment are absent. The idea that public life and institutions accept that constitutional aspirations are equally legitimate is some way off the truth. There are many embedded imbalances with practical implications for all communities. The days of pretending, of lowering the head, tipping the cap or bending the knee, of weaving euphemism into everyday life to survive or avoid facing this cultural and identity deficit should be long gone. Equality of national/constitutional aspirations, and the right to be British or Irish or both, must become part of lived experience. There is a long way to travel on this pathway but solutions are there.
Secondly, people are right to celebrate the victories thus far and to anticipate the progress to come on rights and equality matters. But it should be recalled that these are often symptoms of larger problems, and that we may just be waiting for the next crisis. A tick-box approach to current challenges will, hopefully, achieve the required changes – but what about other problems in the future or those that do not make the list? If power-sharing does emerge again we may just face years of obfuscation, delay and faulty implementation (think about what Brexit will add to this dilemma). There needs to be a heightened focus in the negotiations on implementation and enforcement. People must be crystal clear about what both governments and the parties will do and what will happen if they do not. Both governments in particular must realise that they can never walk away from their responsibilities and that bilateral engagement must be continuous. If structural reform does not lead to a better system of implementation for rights and equality, then we will merely be waiting for the next crisis to appear. Better to face into this now.
It may be that the combination of Brexit and a British government with little feel for the Agreement or subsequent agreements will prove too much to overcome. There is still something potentially appealing (if framed and structured in the right way) about drawing power back into this region and this island. In particular, there is a psychological wall on this island that you will not find on any map but is formidable in its ability to promote division and misunderstanding. Its existence needs to be acknowledged and a (nearly) century-long exercise in conversational avoidance addressed. Whether power-sharing institutions will help or hinder that discussion is an open question. But for those who do think it is a good idea to put the Agreement back together again (in all its parts) then – even in the face of the democratic offence that is Brexit – the answers appear readily at hand. The tragedy remains that they were always there.