Twenty-five years ago this week I was one of hundreds of journalists camped outside the dreary 1970s edifice that is Castle Buildings on the Stormont estate in Belfast to witness the climax of 22 months of tortuous peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.
Those final days did not lack for drama. Rumours of breakthroughs and breakdowns swirled through the media’s portacabins. Tony Blair flew in, declaring he felt “the hand of history” on his shoulder. Ian Paisley, who had boycotted the talks, arrived with his DUP cohorts to protest at what he denounced as the betrayal of unionism. Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, briefly departed for his mother’s funeral in Dublin. President Clinton cajoled and twisted arms in late-night telephone calls from Washington.
Deadlines were extended, and extended again, until finally, after a marathon, non-stop session lasting 33 hours, we learned late on the afternoon of Good Friday that two governments and eight political parties had reached an historic agreement to end Europe’s longest conflict. Unionists agreed to share power, while nationalists and republicans accepted that Irish reunification would require majority consent, to end 30 years of bitter sectarian bloodshed that had cost 3,600 lives.
The Good Friday Agreement was far from perfect. It denied justice to many victims of the Troubles. It required no peace and reconciliation process. Over the subsequent quarter of a century, the power-sharing Stormont government has been suspended for years at a time. Even today there is, for the most part, an absence of violence rather than genuine peace in Northern Ireland, with schools and housing estates deeply segregated and so-called “peace walls” still dividing large tracts of north and west Belfast.
For all that, the agreement was an extraordinary achievement that provided a model for many other efforts to resolve conflicts around the world. It was a victory for the priceless political arts of commitment, perseverance, vision, collaboration, risk-taking, creative diplomacy, mastery of detail and, ultimately, a willingness to compromise and put the common good ahead of narrow partisan interests. Indeed David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party never really recovered.
For Blair, it should be added, there was no great electoral advantage, no votes to be won, by seeking to tackle the long-festering sore of Northern Ireland. Newly elected with a huge majority, he did so because it was the right thing to do.
Sadly, with the possible exception of Gordon Brown’s adroit marshalling of the international community following the 2008 financial crash, the Good Friday Agreement has also proved to be the last great accomplishment of our political leaders for this country. It was the last time that they showed themselves unequivocally to be a force for good that could really improve the lives of the citizens they served.
Within five years Blair had led Britain into the catastrophic war in Iraq. Subsequent prime ministers have come and gone with dizzying rapidity, each markedly worse than his or her predecessor.
Under Boris Johnson and (mercifully briefly) Liz Truss, the governance of Britain plumbed depths unprecedented in modern times. It was characterised by dishonesty, cronyism, borderline corruption, empty promises, gimmickry, sloganeering, disdain for the law and the deliberate fostering of social division for partisan advantage. Loyalty was prized above ability. Party trumped country. Jingoism usurped patriotism. Photo opportunities and headline grabbing were deemed more important than serious long-term planning. The shameless flourished while the honourable were purged.
Nothing exemplified the downward spiral of British politics as starkly as Johnson’s reckless disregard for the Good Friday Agreement. He showed no interest in Northern Ireland. He never bothered to master its complex political dynamics, ludicrously comparing the Irish border to London’s congestion zone. Utterly heedless of the danger it posed to the delicate peace deal, he signed his infamous Northern Ireland Protocol simply so he could promise to “get Brexit done” with an “oven-ready deal” in the 2019 general election. His disgracefully cynical and cavalier conduct was in every way the opposite of Blair’s in 1998.
The consequences of this collapse of good government, hastened of course by Brexit, are now everywhere apparent: feeble economic growth, declining living standards, a weakened currency, imploding public services, diminishing foreign investment, reduced diplomatic clout, emasculated local government, a weakened Union, a demoralised civil service, a degraded environment, a debased honours system and much more besides.
What happened? How did British politics fall so far so fast? How did the country fall prey to such charlatans and ideological fanatics?
[See also: Keir Starmer’s international inspiration]
I don’t have the answers. Rule changes that gave hardline activists a greater say in leadership elections in both the Conservative and Labour parties were doubtless instrumental in elevating the likes of Johnson, Truss and Jeremy Corbyn – all manifestly unfit for high office. We probably pay our MPs too little, deterring the talented and experienced. The rise of social media has certainly fuelled polarisation and discouraged compromise. More broadly, the Iraq war and financial crash gave rise to a cynicism about politics that has been shamelessly exploited by populists not only in Britain but worldwide.
It may be that under Rishi Sunak and, hopefully, Keir Starmer, Britain can finally begin to reverse the downward spiral of the last 25 years. In contrast to their predecessors, both are serious, diligent and relatively honest politicians. Sunak has already undone much of the damage Johnson inflicted on the Good Friday Agreement, and on Britain’s relations with Europe, through his commendable Windsor Framework. Starmer, who celebrates his third anniversary as Labour leader tomorrow (4 April), has successfully rebuilt his party after the debacle of the 2019 election.
But is either man capable of tackling today’s great issues – climate change, social care, NHS reform? They are a huge improvement on what has gone before, but they are technocrats, not conviction politicians. They are not obviously possessed of vision or the capacity to inspire. They lack, perhaps, the single most important quality that propelled the early, pre-Iraq Blair to that long-ago triumph in Belfast: idealism.
[See also: Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe]