Whilst we do not forget the dark past in Northern Ireland, we also have to look to the future and that is true of 1998. The fifteenth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement is an opportunity to examine the impact it had on Northern Ireland, but unfortunately there are some who wish to cling to it and refuse to let politics and society move on beyond something which few teenagers in Northern Ireland can even remember.
The Belfast Agreement has an obvious legacy in contributing phrases such as “constructive ambiguity” to our lexicon. Some of us recognised even fifteen years ago that the language of the agreement was certainly ambiguous but definitely not always constructive. Other words such as decommissioning became central to our politics for nearly a decade because they were not dealt with adequately in 1998.
Unaccountable Ministerial decisions were another by-product of the Belfast Agreement, allowing a Sinn Fein Minister to abolish the transfer-test for primary school pupils without any structure to replace it. This is a legacy of the Belfast Agreement that parents, children and teachers are all too aware of today.
In some ways, the Belfast Agreement provides as its legacy a guidebook of mistakes to be avoided when dealing with issues such as decommissioning, support for the police and unaccountable Ministerial decisions. Thankfully, these issues were properly addressed and resolved as a result of the St Andrews Agreement and since then we have had the longest period of stable devolved government since the collapse of Stormont in 1972.
The Belfast Agreement sought to introduce the concept of consensus politics in Northern Ireland and yet some of the parties who championed that cause, like Alliance and SDLP, are now abandoning the concept in favour of a reversion to a form of 'majority rule' as witnessed recently in Belfast City Council. We will not build a shared future and address the causes of division in our society by one side imposing its will on the other or by a form of cultural whitewashing. For our part we want to keep moving Northern Ireland forward and to build on the progress that has been made. This can only be achieved on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, something that was not delivered on Good Friday 1998.