“The Northern Ireland I live in falls short of what was originally envisaged and voted for back in 1998.” A month after meeting the Elders to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland, campaigner Helen Flynn argues that a peaceful, prosperous future for her country requires politicians to implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its provisions on human rights.
One of the key figures in the negotiations that led to the peace agreement for Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell, stated last May: “the implementation of agreements is as important as reaching them and usually much more difficult. Someone once said that when we have the agreement, then the work begins.”
Over the past fifteen years I’ve grown up with this truth. I was eleven years old when adults across Northern Ireland voted in the referendum for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement – our peace agreement. It was an exciting time, but it was also very difficult.
It was difficult for those involved in the negotiations, and it was difficult for the electorate. They could not cherry pick the bits of the Agreement they liked, but instead had to decide to vote for it, or against it, in its entirety.
While I understand and respect that some people felt that they had to vote ‘No’, I will always be grateful to the 71.1 per cent who voted ‘Yes’. They realised that peace is not easy, but after thirty years of violence our new agreement gave children like me a brighter future.
And it has been a brighter future for many of us. Congratulations are due to the many that made and continue to make this possible. But at the same time I believe that the Northern Ireland I live in falls short of what was originally envisaged and voted for back in 1998.
If we are to achieve the Northern Ireland that was dreamt of, we need to be honest in our appraisal of Northern Ireland fifteen years on and not become blinded by the praise for what has been achieved this far.
Fifteen years on, there is still segregation and suffering
There are major problems in Northern Ireland that are a direct result of the violence and are not the norm in a stable, peaceful society:
- The number of 'interface walls' has increased since 1998, and 90 per cent of social housing is still segregated along religious lines.
- Northern Ireland has the highest rate of pensioner poverty in the UK – 26.8 per cent against a UK average of 21.8 per cent.
- Northern Ireland has persistently had the highest proportion of adults aged from 20 to retirement age with no educational qualifications.
- Suicide rates have been climbing more steeply in deprived areas.1
Despite this, major elements of the Agreement which could have helped create a unified government approach to many of these social and economic issues, including a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland remain unfulfilled. I believe that this is having a detrimental effect on our society.
The Agreement was a vast myriad of interdependent provisions, each essential to deliver a better future. This was endorsed by the British and Irish governments as co-guarantors, and by our electorate. I do not believe that our politicians have the right or mandate to choose not to implement certain parts that they find difficult.
Agreeing the specific human rights to have in a Bill of Rights for a post-conflict society isn't easy, but until we realise this integral element of the agreement, the full potential of that document will remain unrealised.
A Bill of Rights is part of the solution
For example, we recently saw three outbreaks of serious public disorder. A decision of Belfast City Council to restrict flying the Union flag at the City Hall to designated days sparked multiple nights of rioting over several weeks. Despite this, we still do not have the ‘fairness framework’ a Bill of Rights could provide, which would help to address issues such as parades and flags for all sections of our community.
A Bill of Rights of course is not a panacea, but it is part of the solution, which is why it formed part of our peace agreement. It could work to ensure that government decisions are informed by and based on international human rights standards for how decisions are made.
I want to see the key factor in decision-making being the effect it will have on people, because I believe that this will help to build the future people in Northern Ireland hoped for and expected fifteen years ago, instead of one where life continues to get tougher in areas of deprivation.
I want a Bill of Rights to act as a touchstone for every single person in our society, laying out clearly our rights, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political leanings, ethnicity or any other factor.
The inclusion of a Bill of Rights in our peace agreement was not a flippant provision; it was recognition that the conflict affected all aspects of life in Northern Ireland, that rights were abused in all communities, and that principles of equality were undermined.
I do not believe that we can move forward towards a peaceful society until we do complete the provisions of our peace agreement. Fifteen years on, the society envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement has not been achieved in Northern Ireland. We still need to heed the warning of Senator Mitchell and do the hard work necessary.
Helen Flynn is a Campaigns and Membership Officer for Human Rights Consortium, Belfast. In March 2013, she and other young people met with Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt and Gro Harlem Brundtland to discuss some of the challenges facing young people in Northern Ireland today.