Northern Ireland a Generation after Good Friday, C. Coulter, N. Gilmartin, K. Hayward, P. Shirlow

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Prisoner release was probably on a par with policing reform as one of the most contentious issues that arose from the Good Friday Agreement (hereafter GFA). The political representatives of conflict-related prisoners such as Sinn Fein, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) had sufficient influence to argue convincingly that the release of prisoners would advance the delivery of demobilisation and disarmament. While sitting at the heart of wider Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR)1 strategies at that time, the onset of decommissioning and disarmament has led to a decline in the status and influence that the prisoner community had in relation to the two governments. Holding weaponry or using violence, such as in the Canary Wharf bombing, was a reminder of such influence.2 After the ceasefires, prisoners' representatives were feted during visits to Downing Street and Leinster House, as they were consulted at nearly every turn and tweak of the then emerging peace process.
1 See United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Resource Centre. Available at: Accessed 1 February 2020.
2 The IRA's bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996 targeted London's financial district. Two years after the same organisation's ceasefire, its capacity to cause or £100 million of damage, kill two people and injure forty more was indicative of its power to force the pace of negotiations between the IRA and the British government.

An academic survey of aspects of Northern Ireland now that we are more than two decades on from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – not quite a generation, really, but if you count the Troubles as having run from Burntollet to the IRA ceasefire, January 1969 to August 1994, it's been over longer than it lasted. Most people of course would put the start date earlier and the end later, but the point is that we are not far from that milestone one way or the other.

The book is by four academics at four different universities; the chapters are not individually signed, though knowing two of them vaguely I can guess which chapters they were more involved with. It's well structured, and I found many points of agreement as well as several of disagreement. To go through the chapters one by one:

The first chapter is a political history of the years since 1998, the rise and fall of UUP/SDLP-led power-sharing and its DUP/Sinn Féin-led successor. This betrays an authorial bias that pops up in more detail later: that all the current big Northern Irish parties are awful, and the only hope is from a resurgent Left and communities sector. One can believe one of these things without believing the other. It is telling that the narrative voice is not sure whether or not to be happy about the success of the Alliance Party in the 2019 elections.

The second chapter is a substantial and comparative look at dealing with legacy issues, providing victims of the Troubles with closure, an issue that the British government now threatens to meddle in. There is a sympathetic examination of local projects to restore and preserve memories of what happened, and a keen scrutiny of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions elsewhere in the world before concluding that they are not quite right for Northern Ireland. If there was a firm recommendation for what is right for Northern Ireland, or might be, I missed it.

The third chapter really got my blood boiling on an issue which I confess I had not thought much about before: the barriers faced by ex-prisoners and their families in integrating into the workforce. The increase of concerns about vetting employees and potential employees with regard to their legal backgrounds has the downside of pushing people with convictions and time served from decades ago out of jobs that they have done for years. There are a lot of gut-wrenching case studies here, and no prospect of positive political action being taken. One of the best chapters in the book.

The fourth chapter reviews portrayals of the Troubles in cinema and television, only two of which I had seen, Good Vibrations and Derry Girls. The analysis is interesting enough, but a bit dismissive of the two things I liked, and did not fill me with enthusiasm to try any of the others. (Maybe the first series of The Fall.)

The fifth chapter is better, on those who do not identify with either of the two communities. It's the one chapter I really wished had been longer. It's likely that last year's census will show more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland; the really interesting number will be the increase in those who do not identify with either side. The mutual disengagement of most of the people in this category and the political classes is the biggest potential challenge for the Northern Irish political system. As before, the writers think that salvation will come from the Left, which has failed to provide it in the last hundred years.

The sixth chapter looks in detail at the role of women in politics and the failure of the legal system to pursue violence against women as vigorously as it does the perpetrators of political violence. While I feel sympathetic to the theme I felt that this tipped over the edge to polemic; there are a number of reasons why armed conspirators against the state get more attention from law enforcement authorities than abusive spouses. The story of women in politics is presented very much through the narrow focus of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, which was wound up in 2006. Rather surprisingly, the fact that all three MEPs elected in 2019 were women is not even mentioned.

The seventh chapter looks at poverty and at the effect of London-driven welfare "reform" on the Northern Ireland economy. I am sympathetic to the basic narrative – it has never made any sense to me that you can "help" people by giving them less money, and the welfare "reforms" were what prompted me to leave the Liberal Democrats in 2013. The hypocrisy of the local political parties offering all resistance to welfare reforms short of actually doing anything about it is well analysed. Again, it would have been helpful to see an alternative approach elaborated here.

The final chapter was clearly written very hastily in the middle of the pandemic, and can be skipped.

So, more good than bad here – much more good than bad – but not the final word, I think. You can get it here.

One thought on “Northern Ireland a Generation after Good Friday, C. Coulter, N. Gilmartin, K. Hayward, P. Shirlow

Comments are closed.