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A Little More Than Religion

Mary Jones

The Good Friday Agreement, by Siobhán Fenton, Biteback Publishing, 320 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1785903731

The author of this accessible, perhaps timely, publication was five years old when the agreement almost universally referenced as “The Good Friday Agreement” was signed in Belfast in April 1998. That year, as determined by the Gregorian calendar, the feast of Good Friday fell upon that date and an ideologically and historically charged euphemism emerged, full-formed and potently persuasive.

An agreement was signed between two states – the United Kingdom, which had represented three countries in official union within a monarchy since 1800, and the Irish state, legally constituted as an independent state in 1922. In a detailed legal analysis of this agreement, Austen Morgan (2000) states that “The Northern Ireland Act (NIA) 1998 is the principal consequence of the Belfast Agreement” … and the agreement “has also spawned a number of subsidiary international agreements, which are of considerable legal significance”.

This international agreement, or treaty, came into force on December 2nd, 1999, when power was devolved from the UK capital of London to Belfast, the principal city in Northern Ireland, the long-contested UK jurisdiction of six counties on the island of Ireland. Fenton recalls how the theatre of political settlement played out at the level of the domestic. “My parents recall with great distress going out to vote in the referendum … the intense anxiety and trepidation that followed … as they waited to see if this thing, this new ‘Good Friday Agreement’ experiment was really the end or merely another false start … to be followed by…more bloodshed.” In May 1998, the Belfast Agreement was legitimised in separate referendums across the island of Ireland and was passed in both jurisdictions. Fenton records a collective sense that “as the first elected politicians walked through the doors” of Stormont, “Northern Ireland … had its last chance at normality”.

From Castle Buildings, filed by a journalist and recorded in The Irish Times on April 11th, 1998, a local broadcaster was quoted reflecting that “This really will be a Good Friday.” When Mo Mowlam, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, presented the Belfast Agreement to the British parliament on April 21st, she used the term “Good Friday Agreement”, an essentially “journalistic tag”, which may mark the first fall en route to a tale of misadventure, with an endnote of crucifixion.

This book seeks to raise questions on “what peace we have”. The “dark past” of Siobhán Fenton’s society continues, she notes, “to be home to a deeply unsettled and divided region still split along the Protestant-Catholic axis”. And yet, in a society where history is awash with hundreds of years of blood spilled in sectarian hatred, is it wise to reduce the complexity of an international treaty to a journalistic, and political, tag of convenience? Can the divisions that an island of 84,421 sq km, home to peoples of Irish, Old English, Norman, Huguenot and Scottish origin, latterly joined by a diversity of peoples of global origin, and adding to the Irish, English and Ulster Scots pool of languages that recorded how history emerged from such a diversity of peoples, be so reduced? The Brexit saga is peppered with instances of the English elites in full frontal display of their wilful ignorance of the history of this island. If we are to linger on the borders of friendship with a neighbour in some distress, it would be best perhaps to remember the English poet William Blake’s view that “opposition is the true sign of friendship”. We stand in considerable existential danger if we aid and abet the culpable ignorance that has marked much tokenistic toff talk on “the Irish question” if we reduce our own, painful and ever emerging history to the sectarian tags of Protestant/Catholic.

Fenton’s book is launched with a chronological history of the Troubles and an acknowledgement that a reading of such times in any history is formed, and often distorted, by the lens through which it is viewed. Fenton offers her slightly truncated history of events to give “a framework … to the contested histories of the region”. She roots the terminology of Catholic/Protestant as “labels which reflect ethno-nationalist divisions dating back to the early 17th century Ulster Plantation”. Thus, she argues, the bloody history of Ulster emerged less from a theological dispute, more from a power imbalance reflecting an ethnic-nationalist “planting” in Ulster of a loyal English, Scottish and Huguenot population, vested with positions of power and influence over those of the native Irish population, now deemed subjects under empire, “with laws limiting their rights to own land, vote or participate in business”.

Siobhán Fenton is a journalist, with English and Irish parentage, and her short account of the rebellion across this island from the early seventeenth century until Partition is a useful shorthand, particularly for much of the British – and often Irish – media, with an ongoing reluctance to unpack the historical and contemporary limitations of labels of Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist. Questions of identity, of loyalty to a tradition or a form of government, are complex and despite pervasive intransigence, emerge and change over time. Richard Murphy of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, whose family fought on both sides at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, sounds an authentic and authoritative note in Ireland. His journey as a poet reflects the conflicted identity of many who were born into the different traditions. The Protestant, and Catholic, unionists of Ulster and across the three other provinces of Ireland under British jurisdiction, met their Irish neighbours on both sides at such sites of battle. It does not diminish this poet to reflect upon the battle of his ancestors, but complexity demands that it is noted that the gift of Irish land to his family came in the wake of this decisive conquest of Ireland by England.

En route to a series of treaties and agreement by the conquering force and the conquered peoples, the political and economic landscape of this island has been shaped by a litany of initiatives, reactions and consequences. These are not covered in this book – it is a relatively short account that leaps from eight hundred years of British/Irish tensions to a number of attempts at resolution culminating in what, in the title of the book, in the contested vernacular, is “The Good Friday Agreement”.

One omission that matters is that of the movement towards Home Rule, a nationalist initiative to establish a distinct Irish parliament in Dublin, while remaining within the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. The demand for Home Rule and land reform, and the subsequent nationalist gains in parliamentary seats at Westminster, informed the political strategy underpinning the enactment of the Home Rule Bill in 1912. Although not the first bill of its kind, in 1912 the prospect of a parliament in Dublin mobilised resistance, and the prospect of rebellion, from Irish unionists. The Ulster Covenant had been signed by a million people in Belfast in a public gesture of support for the Union. More critically in its historical impact, in 1912 the civilian Ulster Volunteer Force emerged from the framework of the Orange lodges and, by the subsequent landing of arms at Larne, militarised the threat of rebellion by Carson and the Ulster Unionists against the movement towards Home Rule. By 1913, responding to this arming of the UVF, the Irish Volunteers (later the IRA), formed, and armed, in Dublin. The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers were, in effect, united in a readiness for armed conflict, by the mutual adoption of roles for both that were extra-legislatory, and dangerously militarised.

A decade of violent civic and political upheaval followed, across Ireland and into the wake of World War One, scarring public and private life, and culminating in the War for Independence and the partition of the island in 1921. The detail of ongoing contested political and physical terrain is mapped in the Irish and British scholarship that has sought to address the complexities of conquest, resistance, competing claims, sectarianism and the role of the British state.

Partition, as the preferred strategy of empires, was not new – Poland had been divided in 1773, Spain in 1608 and 1700 and the Middle East, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, between 1918 and 1920. The diminishing lands of the Ottoman empire were divided before the Partition of Ireland in 1921, and 1947 marked the Partition of India. Ireland and India – a country and a continent of major difference in scale and complexity of history ‑ were both divided under the authority of the British crown, along sectarian lines. In the case of the Indian continent, partition was a division into two independent states – Pakistan, which comprises mainly Muslim regions, and India, mainly regions of Hindu majority. Ireland, vastly different in scale, and in the face of ongoing resistance of varying degrees of intensity, was partitioned – three provinces comprising twenty-three counties, and a further three counties of Ulster, the fourth province of the island, were to be divided from the remaining six counties of Ulster. These six counties of Ulster were redefined as Northern Ireland, under British jurisdiction and understood as comprising mainly, but not exclusively, Protestant regions; the twenty-six counties across Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht were redefined as the Irish Free State and understood as comprising mainly, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic regions.

This, however, is not a history of tidy towns. In response to The Partition Bill of 1920, resistance had come from across communities and from a range of political and religious dispensations. Between the years 1919 and 1922, The Freeman’s Journal, the oldest nationalist newspaper in Ireland, recorded “… it is clear that the business men in the Carson enclave regard the possibilities of the situation with foreboding, and the banking companies are seized with a spirit of uneasiness …” The unionists were represented by “the party of education and property”, its ranks evident, for example, from the earlier record of the 1887 Dublin unionist demonstration, “101 deputy lieutenants and JPs, 124 barristers, 65 physicians, 28 fellows and professors of Trinity … 455 merchants”. Catholic unionists included landlords, soldiers, lawyers, and, as a unionist pamphleteer noted, with notable exceptions, “all the Roman Catholic gentry, three-quarters of the Roman Catholic professional men, all the great Roman Catholic merchants and half of the domestic class”. Differences of class, based on land ownership or profession or other interests, were reflected in those Belfast merchants and bankers who were uneasy, with concern registered on the likely effect of divided courts and jurisdiction. The Journal recorded that “The prospect (of partition) is causing serious misgivings in Belfast business circles, but the commercial interests are overawed by the sectarians.”

The seeds were sown, with all the potential for dissent and disruption inherent since the seventeenth century planting nurtured by formal partition of the island of Ireland. Fenton addresses what is sub-titled as “The Birth of Northern Ireland” and sketched with reference to the redrawing of electoral boundaries to artificially create unionist majorities in nationalist areas, with proportional representation abolished. The “franchise for local government … [was] … restricted to ratepayers and their spouses and the allocation of social housing firmly in Unionist control”. When challenged by the Catholic population to address a public record of sectarianism based on their exclusion from housing and ongoing voting irregularities, Fenton records a consistent distancing by the London government. In 1928, she notes that a delegation “appealed to the Conservative Home Secretary to act against voter suppression”. The home secretary contacted Stormont prime minister James Craig, who responded in correspondence “ … of course, I am always at your disposal. But beyond that, ‘I know my place’, and don’t propose to interfere.” And interfere they, and the British state, did not.

A further survey in 1943 confirmed a civil service “overwhelmingly Protestant”, with all senior decision-making posts notable for the excluding of Catholics. At its most basic, the right to housing was allocated upon the basis of preferment with scant regard to need. According to the chairman of Enniskillen housing committee in 1963, “The council will decide what wards the houses are to be built in … We are going to see that the right people are put in these houses.” In 1968, a senior unionist politician, in private correspondence with the Northern Ireland Cabinet, wrote of the systematic disenfranchisement of Catholics: “If ever a community had a right to demonstrate against a denial of civil rights, Derry is the finest example … A … nationalist city has for three of four decades … been administered (and none too fairly administered) by a Protestant and Unionist majority and secured by a manipulation of the ward boundaries for the sole purpose of retaining Unionist control.”

From such fertile ground the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement emerged – in tandem with social upheaval across much of the Western world. More moderate strands of unionism were not indifferent to the legitimacy of the claims that sectarian discrimination was a disruptive element within the historically contested dividing of Ulster and of Ireland. Fenton, in this short history for slow learners, details the attempts by a range of governments at Stormont and London to address the overwhelming need for reform, even if only on the basis of somewhat enlightened self-interest. Terence O’Neill, prime minister at Stormont since 1963, suggested that “Unionism armed with justice will be a stronger cause than unionism armed merely with strength.” Such calls for calm and reform clearly sounded a further note – too little, and too late to stay the hand that would hail civic resistance, and the orders that would be armed, heavy and beamed into the sitting rooms of an already uneasy world.

Fenton has attempted, as a journalist and as a person raised in both Northern Ireland and England, to find a route through the labyrinth, the complex, bloody and deadly challenge to the British state from within Northern Ireland, the partitioned place of its first colony, Ireland. The journalist gives a useful chronological account of specific incidents, deaths and beatings, police interventions and army orders. All play a part in the systematic erosion of a society that failed to take account of the indicators that prefaced bloody eruption. A divided civic society could no longer ignore the systematic inequality of treatment and of outcome, along lines exposed as sectarian, amplified by divisions of class and gender, all under the ultimate jurisdiction of the British state.

As a subject of and from within that state, Fenton articulates its impact upon her generation, now in their later twenties, witnesses to shades of The Troubles and to the failures of a state. An ethical minefield had been unearthed, where one side was consigned to “terrorism”, with too little account taken of the discipline imposed upon civilians entering a militarised force seeking no legitimacy from that state; and the other side, the armed forces of the same state, on the streets of Northern Ireland and meeting bloody resistance, responding too often with few holds barred.

Elements of significant change, and challenge to the status quo as prevailed at such times, are agreements. The legal precedent for the Belfast Agreement is the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, an international agreement that established that the Irish government had “a right of consultation” in the affairs of Northern Ireland. It did not have universal acceptance, as in any move towards a legal change in rights of preferment and a subsequent loss of status and power, will inevitably arise with a more just distribution of such social and political rights to others. Resistance was vested in a claim of lack of “consultation”, with degrees of legitimate grievance along those lines arising from a variety of sources. By 1998, the Human Rights Act had established a route for securing and extending such rights, its most telling testament to date perhaps residing in the direct relation between a satisfying of such claims and access to the material resources to further them though the agreed channels. Consistently, Fenton illustrates thwarted recognition of a record of appalling loss, inflicted across a population by forces for and against the continuing legitimacy of the state, the contested terrain awash with blood of others and the near-death of hope.

The need for an intervention – an act of considered human agency – to call a halt to such mayhem fuelled efforts from the British state, the Irish state and the informed goodwill and economic support of the United States and the members of the European Union, a Union where membership included both States most involved, and the establishing of a peace process with a range of most significant elements. It included the willingness of all militarised civilian parties to lay down their arms. The agreement incorporated the acceptance by the citizens of the Irish state, through a referendum, to delete from Bunreacht Na hÉireann, the written constitution of Ireland, Articles 2 & 3, which claimed the whole island of Ireland as its territory. In return, the aspiration to the re-unification of the island, or its continuing status under the British jurisdiction, would be accepted as a decision vested in the subjects of Northern Ireland, to be changed by consent through referendum. Both contested and historically conflicting positions held by those giving allegiance to the Irish state, and those giving allegiance to the British crown, were acknowledged as rights of equal validity and weight, understood as “parity of esteem”.

The Belfast Agreement is an international treaty, wrote Austen Morgan, “ … located legally within the historic partitioning of Ireland”. The parties concerned are two states ‑ the United Kingdom, which dates from 1800, and the Irish state, legally created in 1922. If the disruption anticipated across this island arising from ongoing Brexit ambivalence demands a vigorous defence by Ireland as a signatory to that agreement, the route will be legal and international. It is inappropriate and indicative perhaps of a lack of seriousness in the public discourse on this agreement, which came into force on Thursday, December 2nd, 1999, the day that power was devolved from London to Belfast, that it has come to be so widely labelled as “The Good Friday Agreement”. Christians and the Orthodox tradition commemorate this movable feast at Easter. In 1998 that feast fell on the day when the Belfast Agreement was signed at Stormont, Northern Ireland in the jurisdiction of the UK. It is borderline cavalier, in a part of this island that has been so scarred by sectarian violence, that the legal title of this historic Agreement is elided within the theological ether, to be hallmarked by the name of a feast day that – across all traditions – ends with a crucifixion.


Mary Jones is a documentary maker, director of Arkhive productions and author of The Other Ireland: Changing Times 1870-1920.



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