Now that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is on the shelf we can look back to get a better perspective of what that story was all about.
What was so clever about the Good Friday Agreement was not just the agreement itself; it was a fudge that papered over the cracks to get the ceasefires in place and for that it served this society well; the real cleverness was in the stories used to sell it to two very different constituencies and how this society was manipulated.
We humans are hard-wired for story-telling ever since we first acquired language. This is especially true in Ireland and Scotland with the ancient tradition of the seanchaí or seanchaidh. The leading mythologist, Joseph Campbell, was inspired by the Irish myths and the work of Irish writer James Joyce, and JRR Tolkien based much of Lord of the Rings on Irish mythology.
This talent for story-telling is an asset when used to inspire and inform, but those that have power over us have seen long ago how our affection for story-telling can be used to their advantage to manipulate and control us. It started with advertising and ‘brand-awareness’, but has moved well beyond simply convincing us to consume. Now they have a matrix – a highly controlled 24-hour global media machine – to plant in the public’s mind whatever stories they need to further their objectives, to sell ideas. In this way they control the outcome of elections, cause wars and change the destinies of countries and, in the case of modern Ireland, turn truth on its head.
As far as Northern Ireland is concerned they first of all used the power of story-telling to create narratives to convince Irish Catholics and Protestants that they were different, wanted different things and should be bitter rivals. This enabled the state to very successfully divide and rule. The GFA became an important part of this narrative, but it was much more than institutionalising the historic division that had been deliberately created. It was a last attempt to preserve the existing union with Britain.
The Machiavellian minds beyond the island of Ireland that conceived the GFA knew that the Irish republican movement could not be persuaded to participate in a strategy to protect the union, that such a strategy would only work if republicans could be convinced by very different incentives to become full partners in a political process. So it was made to look that this GFA was detrimental to unionist interests (time has shown this to be quite false). A story was constructed that, as this was a major concession to Irish republicans, it must be harmful to unionist interests. This simple binary equation has worked well in Ireland for generations.
As reliable as ever, Ian Paisley led the charge against ‘terrorists in government’. This became the abiding story for unionists and, among other factors, convinced republicans to take part: on the basis that if unionists don’t like it must be an important concession to Irish nationalism.
Of course none of this revealed the true intention of GFA. Ultimately republicans ended up working the machinery of the British state, albeit with some bells and whistles that enabled them to sell it to their supporters. Likewise unionists, even the supposed militants in the DUP, came to work with ‘terrorists in government’ and even to support the GFA, again with a few bells and whistles in the St Andrews Agreement, which enabled them to sell it to their supporters. However, the main objective of securing the union for the British state was achieved.
However unionists still remained at best ambivalent about the GFA. Instead of seeing it as it was – a last chance saloon and working it enthusiastically, which in itself would have unsettled republicans – the narrative unionists had been given persuaded them that it was still a trap that they had been forced into which would destroy the cherished union if they weren’t forever distrustful and vigilant. After 20 years this trap had not materialised. The truth is it was Sinn Fein who were trapped, not the DUP.
On the other side, Sinn Fein, who had played a key role in the bitter 25 year armed struggle against the forces of Britain and unionism, were persuaded to operate the new institutions in what still remained a British state. The narrative persuaded them that this arrangement would put manners on unionism and advance their cause by blurring ‘Britishness’.
Under McGuinness they became the GFA’s most loyal supporters. The party hierarchy became dinner guests of the British royals.
In spite of unionist suspicions and regular accusations, Sinn Fein did not use its new influence to undermine the British state. For ten years they diligently and conscientiously worked the state’s apparatus like model citizens.
During the 10 years of DUP/SINN FEIN rule the term ‘united Ireland’ became an extinct phrase. Even the Irish language became a side issue. Only when the institutions collapsed did these issues suddenly come back into public discourse; proving the theory that GFA had effectively marginalised those ambitions.
In effect perceived roles were inverted through the narrative that had been created around GFA. Republicans became the guardians of the system and unionists became the disaffected.
The DUP became an unsettling influence on the institutions, regularly mired in scandal and threatening to withdraw. They went through three First Ministers in less than 10 years, with one – Peter Robinson – having to stand down temporarily. It was only when the third DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, refused to stand down in the face of yet another scandal, that the whole shaky edifice finally collapsed.
Bizarrely, Sinn Fein, under former IRA leader, Martin McGuinness, became a steadying influence right up to the final days when they refused to take part in a vote of No Confidence vote on Arlene Foster.
Now, thanks to the RHI crisis – another great story – Sinn Fein are free and clear of the trap they found themselves in – all thanks to their liberators, the DUP.
Now we see since the post-Brexit collapse of the institutions in January 2017, that the devolution offered by the GFA for all its faults was unionism’s last chance to make this place somehow work within the union.
Squaring the circle
without power-sharing with republicanism devolved government is not achieveable and without devolved government the union was vulnerable
has now become impossible.
Over the last eighteen months Northern Ireland has been rapidly descending into the ‘failed state’ status traditionally claimed by republicans.
Suddenly, since the January 2017 collapse, the DUP have been very keen to reach a settlement with Sinn Fein to get back into Stormont, in stark contrast to their position twenty years ago of refusing to even talk to Sinn Fein and in contrast to their position in government with Sinn Fein when they held them in almost daily contempt. The penny has finally dropped with the DUP, but it’s too late.
I believe it is only through the GFA experience we can clearly see that our politics is made up of stories which manipulate our thinking and mask the truth.
In reality the DUP are not the defenders of the union they claim to be. Under their watch, the last chance to make this place work within the union was very reluctantly grasped and then destroyed by their behaviour.
Sinn Fein were not the champions of a united Ireland they had claimed. They had allowed themselves to become trapped inside the imperial palace of Stormont.
Under the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland politics became like a football match where neither team was sure which goal they should attack and which to defend. Now that particular game is over, the teams are wondering why they did not see things more clearly. The answer is they were spellbound by a master story-teller.
The GFA story created this confusion and blurred the lines. It turned the DUP into doubtful defenders of the union and Irish republicans into ‘new unionists’ committed to operating the structures of the state. That was its genius.
But now the Story-tellers have decided that the GFA play must close. They have begun a new drama and the company of actors are trying to work out what parts they each will play.
How this inversion of politics here plays out without the Stormont theatre remains to be seen. But until the Irish people north and south begin to see how these narratives are created by others to control Irish affairs to the interests of those beyond the island, these manufactured dramas will continue to make fools of us all.