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Update from Northern Ireland: February Agreement Puts Government Back on the Track to Peace

Resource type: News

Martin OBrien |

Northern Ireland was a different place when Atlantic first began making grants there in the early 1990s. The violent conflict had claimed thousands of lives and had deeply divided communities. Atlantic was drawn to the country by Atlantic Founder, Chuck Feeney, who himself played an important role in helping to secure the ceasefires in Northern Ireland and the historic Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Our grant making has evolved over time but our work in Northern Ireland has always had a focus on peace building. This has been alongside early investments in higher education and the voluntary sector and our current work in respect of older people, children and reconciliation and human rights.

The Belfast Agreement heralded an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland and laid out the framework for a new devolved power sharing government. But since its signing more than a decade ago, the devolved government has lurched from one crisis to the next and was suspended on a number of occasions due to difficulties between the main parties.

Most recently, the failure to agree on a date and process for transferring responsibility for policing and criminal justice from the Westminster Parliament to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly threatened to collapse the power sharing Executive and Assembly and lead to new elections.

This brought public frustration to a fever pitch with many criticizing the “stop/start” nature of the political process and the failure of politicians to tackle key issues affecting the lives of people in Northern Ireland. Amidst this public pressure, and after almost two weeks of intensive negotiations involving the British and Irish Prime Ministers and US government representatives, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the two largest local political parties, finally reached an agreement on 5th February 2010.

The Agreement includes a commitment by the parties to work together to deliver a better society for all based on mutual respect and equality. This commitment to work as a team is what has been missing to date and is essential to preventing a new crisis in the next five or six months. The Agreement also importantly notes that the parties will work to move ahead on the long list of policy decisions which have been stalled as a result of the political tensions within the government. The Agreement also sets 12th April as the date for the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British Government to the devolved Assembly.

The move to devolution is linked to the parties reaching agreement on a new mechanism to deal with decision making on controversial parades by one section of the community through neighbourhoods where the other community predominates. These parades have been the focus for much community tension over the years. Failure to reach agreement on this issue could still derail the process.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown described the recent agreement as “closing a final chapter” on the Northern Ireland peace process. While it would be wonderful if that proves to be the case, the process to date suggests that further difficulties may crop up again in the months ahead. The encouraging news is that difficulties can be overcome and new structures and processes have been established to resolve emerging problems.

While incidents of dissident paramilitary violence may continue, going back to the sustained violence which brought so many deaths and injuries to Northern Ireland is not an option. Lasting peace however depends on ensuring that communities which suffered during the worst of the violence see some benefits from the peace process. That means that there must be a steady focus on implementing the range of laws and policies which have been enacted over the years to deliver a fairer society for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has some of the most progressive equality and rights infrastructure in the world and the challenge now is to make that infrastructure deliver to those that need it most. Accountability and transparency around how core public services such as education, health, criminal justice and investment are delivered are critical to moving Northern Ireland forward and to cementing peace and strengthening democracy. Atlantic supports a range of grantees working to this end including the Committee on the Administration of Justice; the Northern Ireland Law Centre; the Integrated Education Fund; Include Youth; The Age Sector Platform and the Participation and Practice of Rights Project.

In that vein, it’s vital that the investment conference which U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has agreed to sponsor later this year works to ensure that investment goes to the areas of greatest need and does not simply perpetuate past patterns of inequality. Expectations are high amongst communities most in need and delivery is the new watch word. Similarly, progress still has to be made to secure a strong Bill of Rights. Such a Bill presents an opportunity to provide Northern Ireland with a framework and vision of a just and equal society that protects the rights of all and which can also provide a model from which others can learn.

Martin O’Brien

Director, Reconciliation & Human Rights Programme, Country Representative, Northern Ireland (UK)


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