Fintan O’Toole: We must reclaim the great democratic spirit of the 1998 Belfast Agreement

Have we used the past 25 years as well as we should have? Undoubtedly not

Sooner or later, the Irish question had to change from “what are you willing to kill and die for?” to “what can you live with?” That’s what happened on Good Friday 25 years ago.

What those of us who inhabit this island have to live with is each other. Living with neighbours who do not see the world in the same way you do can be difficult – but, as Northern Ireland had come to know all too well, it is much easier than the alternative.

The bleakness of the Troubles was that they did not merely reflect tribal and sectarian divisions, they deepened and reinforced them. Violence became a self-renewing source of bitterness and animosity.

The great imperative of the agreement was to stop that violence. It was shaped by the acceptance, however reluctant, that the only people who could do that were the perpetrators.


In many respects the shape of the deal was not new. Its basic architecture – powersharing in Belfast, cross-Border bodies, the acceptance by Ireland of the principle of consent and by Britain of the legitimacy of nationalist aspirations to a United Ireland – had been drawn up a quarter of a century before 1998.

But experience had shown that nothing stable could be built on blood-soaked ground. Atrocities would always destroy the trust and cohesion necessary for any settlement to hold.

In that regard, the biggest leap in the agreement was not what it said but who was saying it. It included, in effect, both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries.

This involved difficult moral compromises, including the release from prisons of unrepentant killers. They were a price worth paying – helping the paramilitaries out of the hole they dug for themselves was the only way to stop digging more graves for the victims of a potentially endless conflict.

For all its delicate balances and minute choreography, the agreement was really about achieving something quite simple: breathing space. It left the past, at least temporarily, behind. It left the future open – to be decided at some unspecified time by a majority vote.

Between that dark history and that unknown outlook, the agreement created a present tense, a time in which to live and breathe – and hopefully to get used to the inescapable realities of sharing an increasingly diverse and pluralist space.

Has that time been used as well as it should or could have been? Undoubtedly not.

The tribal politics built into the agreement have not been diminished by the experience of devolved government in Belfast. The stuttering existence of the political institutions has frustrated the hope that a culture of co-operation and mutuality would emerge.

Brexit has unsettled many of the assumptions of the agreement, not least that a shared European space already existed and would continue to ease the sense of division within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.

Yet it is not necessary to be starry-eyed about the effects of the agreement to recognise it as both a remarkable achievement and a touchstone for what remains to be achieved.

In an era when democracy is under threat worldwide, it is important to reconnect with the great democratic spirit of the agreement. It showed that politics can work, that we are not doomed to tribalism, that history is not fate, and that “self-determination” can mean, not getting everything you want, but consciously choosing generosity, compromise and reconciliation.

We must, after the upheavals of the last seven years, reclaim that democratic spirit – and reopen the breathing space that was cleared for us 25 years ago. That space is the common ground in which we can live with our shared complexities.