In recent decades, there have been multiple attempts to introduce the institutions of consociational governance in a range of settings where ethno-cultural divisions have given rise to sustained political violence. The context in which this experiment in cross-cultural power sharing is most often identified as having worked best is Northern Ireland (Fenton 2018: 3). The status of the Good Friday Agreement as 'the brightest star in the new consociational universe' (Taylor 2009: 7) was underlined at a gathering of the great and the good in Queen's University Belfast held on 10 April 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary of the deal. Addressing a receptive audience in the Whitla Hall, Bill Clinton (2018) made the case that the design of the Northern Irish peace settlement had been crafted with sufficient skill that it would withstand the human error of those politicians who had been entrusted with putting it into practice. The Good Friday Agreement, the former US President insisted, should be acknowledged as 'the work of genius that is applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy'. The lavish praise, often shading into hyperbole, that has perennially characterised international commentary on the Northern Irish peace process has, it should be said, no little basis in fact. Since the advent of the Good Friday Agreement, after all, incidents of politically motivated violence that were once an everyday reality of life in Northern Ireland have thankfully become more and more rare. According to one estimate, there are at present around 2,400 Northern Irish people who are alive and well but who would have long since been cold in the grave had the peace deal not materialised (McCaffery 2018). It is important to mark at the outset then that the single greatest achievement of the Good Friday Agreement has been the removal of the gun from Irish politics' (Shirlow 2018: 392).
While the praise that international commentators have frequently heaped on the Northern Irish political settlement has some grounding in fact it is also a product of the flattering distortions that can arise when viewing events from the safety of a comfortable distance. What sometimes appears to people living elsewhere as a seamless transition to peace has in reality been a remarkably arduous process that has entailed seemingly endless rounds of re-negotiation and that has seen the political institutions at Stormont suspended on no fewer than five occasions. The latest of these suspensions occurred in January 2017 when a visibly ailing Martin McGuinness announced that Sinn Fein was withdrawing from the power-sharing executive. All attempts to revive the Stormont assembly have subsequently come to nothing and consequently when the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement came around the devolved institutions that were supposed to be its principal achievement remained in a state of suspended animation. It was hardly surprising then that an event such as that hosted in Queen's University Belfast that was no doubt originally conceived as a star studded celebration of two decades of the peace deal would in the end have a distinctly elegiac tone.
In the autumn of 1999, Capital & Class published a special edition devoted to a Good Friday Agreement that was at that stage barely a year old. The arrival of the 20th anniversary of the Northern Irish peace deal naturally prompted a great deal of reflection on its progress, or otherwise, and provided the rationale for the collection of 10 essays presented here. In the articles that follow, scholars working in different settings and writing from different academic disciplines set out to provide a critical and engaging profile of Northern Ireland two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement. The essays gathered here underline the progress that has been made over the course of the peace process, with the emergence in the six counties of a society that is a great deal more multicultural than ever before and in which younger people are often able to explore more progressive and cosmopolitan cultural preferences than previous generations. The authors also seek, however, to illustrate the abiding stasis of a mainstream political culture that remains consumed with the competing ethno-national claims that animate the 'constitutional question'. We hope that this special edition will prove a worthy companion to its predecessor and will provide a radical and accessible profile of a society that has emerged from the traumas of its 'long war' only to endure the paralysis of its 'long peace'. In all likelihood, most readers will not be entirely familiar with the often dense narrative that has unfolded since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It would be prudent then to begin the collection with a broad overview of the tortuous path that Northern Irish political history has taken over the last two decades.
Guns and government
While the Good Friday Agreement sought to deal with the 'totality of relationships' between the peoples of Ireland and Great Britain, its principal concern was of course to mend the historically troubled relations between the 'two traditions' often said to co-exist in Northern Ireland (Shirlow & Coulter 2007: 207-209). The peace deal made provision for institutions of government that would require unionists and nationalists to share power and responsibility with one another. Although the principle of consociationalism found favour among most shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland from the outset, it would nonetheless take almost a decade for the institutions envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement to begin operating in a manner that even appeared to be sustainable. The main initial obstacle to the formation of a stable power sharing government illustrated the facility of the peace deal to mean often radically different things to different people (O'Kane 2013: 516). In order to square the circle of at times mutually exclusive ethno-national demands, those who framed the Good Friday Agreement engaged in a certain 'constructive ambiguity' (Nagle 2018: 399). This particular attribute - and, perhaps, shortcoming - of the document was especially apparent in its provisions for the disposal of illegally held arms or 'decommissioning'.
While unionist politicians took the view that the Good Friday Agreement required republican (as well as loyalist) paramilitaries to dispose of their armouries, Sinn Fein tended to counter, entirely accurately as it happens, that the text of the deal merely required them to 'use any influence they may have' to persuade the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) to give up its arms. These radically divergent readings of one of the principal ambiguities at the heart of the peace settlement would haunt all of the initial attempts to establish power sharing government in Northern Ireland. On each occasion, the choreography of political failure would unfold in the same predictable manner: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) would agree to enter government on the proviso that republicans would in the near future decommission their weapons (Aughey 2006: 129-130); Sinn Fein would also agree to form a government but insist that the Provisional IRA was under no obligation to put its arms beyond use and that unionist demands that it do so were in fact prompted by a repugnance at the thought of sharing power with nationalists (Shirlow & Murtagh 2006: 43); finally, after a short interlude marked by intense bickering, unionists would note that republicans had failed to decommission and would then refuse to continue in government, precipitating its collapse. In the initial phase of the peace process, this sequence of mutual recrimination and political stalemate would be repeated on no fewer than four separate occasions (Tonge 2006: 200). By the time the last of these suspensions of the institutions of government occurred in October 2002, much of the initial enthusiasm for the peace process had dissipated and a palpable sense of political disillusionment had descended on Northern Ireland.
The dismal failure of the initial attempts to form sustainable power sharing government in Northern Ireland would initiate a process of polarisation between the 'two communities' that would in time, ironically, facilitate the cause of political progress in the region. The refusal of unionists to remain in power with republicans in the absence of 'decommissioning' served to alienate members of the nationalist community who came increasingly to see Sinn Fein as the party with the capacity to defend their interests most resolutely. At the same time, the refusal of the republican movement to dispose of their arms became a growing source of disquiet among unionists already sceptical towards the peace process and led them to see the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the most effective bulwark against further concessions to nationalists (Nagle 2018: 401). The symbiotic interplay between these radicalising forces would become ever more apparent in electoral terms. In the early days of the peace process, Sinn Fein and the DUP were only the secondary political voices within their respective ethno-political communities. As each attempt to establish stable devolved government in Northern Ireland ran aground, however, these parties that had been previously dismissed as 'extremists' began to attract larger and more diverse bodies of support (Evans &Tonge 2009: 1016-1017). By the time of the 2003 elections to an assembly that was no longer sitting, Sinn Fein and DUP had clearly established themselves as the principal political forces within their respective communities and the years since have merely confirmed their electoral hegemony (O'Kane 2013: 527).
While the rise of these radically opposed parties often seemed to imperil the cause of political progress in Northern Ireland, it would in time prove to be its prerequisite. One of the problems that face 'moderate' political...