April marks the 25th year since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Some may ask “why should we pass comment on this: we live in Bristol not Belfast?” But for me as a person of Irish heritage and for thousands of people in Britain who lived through the conflict and never-ending cycle violence dominating the news it was huge event.
But the Agreement wasn’t a single moment in time and it should never be seen as such. It is a process. A set of principles that help us rebuild, reconcile and reaffirm our commitment to peace on the island of Ireland. By it’s very nature the Good Friday Agreement is flexible. We can adapt to the times to ensure that everyone continues to have a stake in the future of a prosperous UK and Republic of Ireland.
Recently, I attended the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) extraordinary meeting to mark the significance of this milestone. BIPA was established in 1990 to help develop a greater understanding of all communities and jurisdictions involved in the process. The gathering took place in Stormont, which sadly hasn’t a working Assembly right now, and saw leading figures of the original agreement sharing their experience. We heard from Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach at the signing of the agreement, Sir John Holmes, former Principal Private Secretary to Prime Ministers Major and Blair. Their words not only painted a picture of the efforts needed to secure the document, but what must be done to keep the words alive in the minds of everyone on the island of Ireland and between our islands.
I was proud to chair the panel discussion titled “The Women’s Coalition and the Good Friday Agreement”. The Women’s Coalition (NWC) was a cross-community organisation that campaigned for women to be written into, rather than out of the Northern Ireland peace process. Around 150 women attended the first NWC meeting and were instrumental in introducing amendments to the Good Friday Agreement on issues such as mixed housing, the inclusion of women in public life, special initiatives for young people affected by the conflict and the promotion of a culture of tolerance.
Although this meeting allowed us to reflect on the years that have passed, it also has helped focus minds on what is to come. The recent announcement on the changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol – the agreement between the UK and EU on the movement of goods and services between mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland – is yet another chapter in our shared history.
The peace process is just that: a never-ending march forward. We may encounter bumps in the road, but we must continue to work hard to deliver for all communities and secure a lasting peace.