Ten Years On-The Journey towards Peace in Northern Ireland

By Heaney, Liam | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Ten Years On-The Journey towards Peace in Northern Ireland


Heaney, Liam, Contemporary Review


MANY readers will recall the momentous day just over ten years ago, in May 1998, when the political parties in Northern Ireland agreed to move forward and the Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionol Thuaisceart Eireann; Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlannn Semmile) was established.

It was an occasion that attracted the attention of the media and political leaders worldwide and expectations and hopes were high throughout the land for the future. Without doubt, The Good Friday Agreement or The Belfast Agreement marked a turning point in Northern Ireland's troubled history. However, many realised from the outset, that the signing of the Agreement was only part of the story and that peace and harmony would not become immediately evident on the streets of Northern Ireland or indeed within the political arena.

This was demonstrated with the suspension of the assembly from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007, which was just over four and half years. Newspapers and the media gave substantial coverage to this turbulent period and therefore there is no need to rehearse those events in this piece. Nonetheless, with the passing of the years the Agreement has been the catalyst for much negotiation and debate. Power sharing has come about and it is fair to say that much has happened on the social, economic, educational and social front, since that historic day.

In this article, I aim to explore some of the major developments that have come about since the Agreement was signed, specifically with regard to the restoration of devolved powers in May 2007. I aim to set out some of the more substantial changes that have taken place 'on the ground' over the years and to discuss some of the challenges that still remain for both politicians and for the people of Northern Ireland to address.

On 8 May 2007, full power was restored to the devolved institutions and this marked a momentous change of direction for the politicians and for Northern Ireland itself. One significant sign of progress which is worth noting, relates to the visit of Her Majesty the Queen. The Queen has visited Northern Ireland many times over the years but on Thursday 20th March 2008, she attended the Maundy Celebrations in St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh. This was a special and a unique occasion for the city of Armagh, known as the city of saints and scholars. The Cathedral is set on a hill from which the city takes its name, Ard Macha, the Height of Macha. Legend tells us that Macha was a pre-Christian tribal goddess. This whole area has a rich and vibrant history and has associations with the legendary Cuchulainn, the 'Hound of Ulster' and with St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.

The distribution of Alms and the washing of feet on the Thursday of Holy week have great historical significance. Indeed, the Maundy can be traced back to the twelfth century in England and records have been kept from the reign of King Edward I. On this occasion of the Queen's visit, the five Royal Schools of Ulster were represented and pupils from these schools and other schools in the city celebrated the event with family and friends.

The Queen's visit is one example of how the social and political climate of Northern Ireland is becoming more temperate. It is also evident that people in general are more optimistic about the future. There is a real sense of 'normality' returning to life in Northern Ireland, something that has not existed for more than thirty-five years. However, it would be wrong to say that Northern Ireland's problems are at an end. There are many, many challenges ahead for politicians, economists and for educationalists, as well as, for the people of Northern Ireland. As in most situations, optimism needs to be tempered with realism.

From this perspective it is worth noting some of the challenges that need to be addressed in the coming years. For example, it has been argued from many quarters that the economic promises which were made with the signing of the Agreement have not been fully realised and thus the newly constituted Assembly has struggled to find the necessary funding to support economic, education, health and social projects. …

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