Good Friday Agreement: 'We’re fed up with not having a voice'

Antoinette Morrow, from Whitehead, Co Antrim. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Antoinette Morrow, from Whitehead, Co Antrim. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

“It’s the same old, same old that’s been talked about for the last 25 years.”

Antoinette Morrow, from Whitehead, Co Antrim, remembered the “overwhelming emotion” she felt when the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed.

“My kids were tiny at the time,” she said. “I just remember thinking this will bring peace.”

But 25 years on, she has been left hugely frustrated that politics in Northern Ireland has remained polarised.

“I think we’re fed up with not having a voice,” she said.

“It’s all very well if you’re green or orange but we don’t even have a functioning government.”

The north’s devolved institutions have been suspended twice in five years - the first between 2017 and 2020, and again last year after the DUP left the power-sharing Executive amid its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit trade mechanism.

“It's the same old, same old that's been talked about for the last 25 years,” Ms Morrow told The Detail.

She is one of several citizens and groups who are taking part in the Thirty project, four mini citizens’ assemblies organised by Derry-based community relations group, the Holywell Trust.

She said she wanted to take part after feeling frustrated by the “dysfunctionality of life in Northern Ireland”.

“I think that polarisation of thought and conversation has totally cut out the majority of regular people that need to have a voice,” she said.

Maeve Murphy with her sister Colette Finnegan. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Maeve Murphy with her sister Colette Finnegan. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Colette Finnegan and her sister Maeve Murphy, from north Belfast, are also taking part in the project.

Ms Murphy said many people, including themselves, do not feel represented in politics.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t have a voice,” she said.

She added: “We’re very multicultural (in the north) now and everyone’s affected by the same things - the cost of living crisis, the health service and all those things.”

Ms Finnegan said there was frustration that “change only happens when there's a tragedy or something happens that brings it to your door”.

For Kathy Wolff, who lives outside Ballyclare, Co Antrim, the voice of rural women has rarely been heard at Stormont.

“I think we got into a bit of apathy where I know that I felt that what I had to say was important but there was nobody there to listen to me,” she said.

“I think we've got to the stage that we're all so fed up that we say nothing.”

Unpopular decisions

More than two decades ago the 60-member Civic Forum, set up as part of the Good Friday Agreement, was mothballed after just two years.

The 2014 Stormont House agreement and the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement both included commitments for greater civic engagement.

A six-member Civic Advisory Panel was set up by the Executive in December 2016 but was hit by the collapse of the assembly just weeks later and the Covid pandemic.

Kathy Wolff, from Ballyclare, Co Antrim. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Kathy Wolff, from Ballyclare, Co Antrim. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Ms Wolff, who works for Newtownabbey Community Relations Forum, said a new civic body could transform Northern Ireland by helping politicians make unpopular decisions.

“You look at our health service,” she said.

“We hear our MLAs or MPs say it’s not fit for the job that it's there for.

“Well, we all know that it's not fit for the job but they don't want to close a hospital because they might lose votes.

“Could civic forums be a way that takes maybe a bit of the pressure off them by saying these things have to be done?”

She said a new civic forum would encourage participants who are turned off by Northern Ireland’s partisan politics.

“A lot of people don’t vote now because they don’t think that it’s going to make a difference - we’re still going to get what we always got,” she said.

Ms Morrow said a forum could make recommendations about pressing issues including on “health, education, the economy, jobs”.

“I think a lot of the decision making around those (issues) could be made at a citizen level to inform government,” she said.

Gerard Deane, director of the Holywell Trust. Photo courtesy of Gerard Deane

Gerard Deane, director of the Holywell Trust. Photo courtesy of Gerard Deane

Gerard Deane, director of the Holywell Trust, said there is no structure for citizens to feed into government policy.

“We feel as though local people need to be trusted on some of the more difficult issues that we have,” he said.

“And we are confident that if people are given the information and the opportunity to discuss them, they'll arrive at positive solutions.”

Civic Initiative

Earlier this year, campaigner Emma DeSouza founded the Civic Initiative, a project aimed at supporting “the advancement of peace, reconciliation and wellbeing in Northern Ireland” in the absence of a civic forum.

Organisations taking part in the Initiative include the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, the Rural Community Network and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action.

In July, the Initiative will hold the first of six regional meetings, convened by community organisations, to ask citizens about the social issues which matter to them.

The Initiative will also ask for submissions, hold workshops and host a gathering of 100 citizens.

“It’s about trying to take a very expansive and inclusive approach and is a different approach than the Civic Forum,” she said.

Emma DeSouza, founder of Civic Initiative. File picture by Press Eye

Emma DeSouza, founder of Civic Initiative. File picture by Press Eye

Ms DeSouza said the project, which will run until December 2024, will be focused on solutions.

“There's never been a shortage of ideas on how to move things forward, what we are missing is the framework and structure to properly harness those ideas,” she said.

“And the Civic Initiative is trying to create a space where we can do that, where we can get into communities, talk about the issues, but more importantly talk about how we can fix them.”

She said the structures set up by the Initiative could continue after the project ends.

“We are engaging with the Irish and British governments and will continue to engage with them throughout this process to make the case… that civic structures are not just beneficial but they're necessary in Northern Ireland in a post conflict society,” she said.

Political education

For other groups, greater political education is key.

Eileen Weir from Shankill Women’s Centre, has been involved in peace-building for decades.

She said there is a knowledge gap amongst many people about what the Good Friday Agreement means today.

Ms Weir said it is vital that working class communities learn about political structures “because everything goes back to the Good Friday Agreement”.

“It’s very important that people understand the agreement and the reasons why we are where we are,” she said.

Eileen Weir from Shankill Women's Centre. Photo by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Eileen Weir from Shankill Women's Centre. Photo by Claire Simpson, The Detail

She said the continued impasse at Stormont was a “disaster”.

“Community workers can’t take any more on," she said.

"I’m doing good relations, I’m doing peace-building, I’m doing food banks, people are coming in and talking to me about their mental health.

“Everything just seems to be getting dumped on the community.”

The centre is running a programme, Changemakers, which aims to educate women about politics and encourage them into public life.

Project support worker Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston said the programme was set up after women who took part in the centre’s activities asked how they could get more involved in their community.

She said there is no guide for people who want to take on greater civic roles.

“I think it's typical of working class communities where politics and governance are always seen as better left to those who are better off socially, better off financially, better educated,” she said.

“Sometimes in a post-conflict society, particularly for younger ones, (it’s the feeling) your voice is more of a hindrance rather than a help - ‘I didn't live through the Troubles, so I don't really know. I can't talk like that. I'm not a teacher, I'm not a doctor’.

“It's almost a feeling of being considered a fraud.”

Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston. Picture by Claire Simpson, The Detail

Over a year, Changemakers will help 30 women from north and west Belfast earn qualifications in good relations, civic leadership and community development, and learn about the political structures in Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic.

Participants will also learn how to deliver programmes in the community.

Ms Corr-Johnston said community development organisations tend to “do the heavy lifting” in bringing about social change.

“The programme very much is about empowering women to use their voices to be the change that they want to see within their own communities,” she said.

She said she hopes the programme will encourage more women to enter politics and community organisations.

“We're over 50% of the population and yet we are the least represented. when it comes to political institutions,” she said.

She added: “It's about breaking down those barriers, dispelling those myths and encouraging women to use their voice to stand up… but we also want these women to feel empowered and confident to step into the positions that become available within communities - the parent teacher associations (PTAs), the boards of governors, the committees or boards of various organisations within communities.”

Ms Corr-Johnston said many of the women taking part in the programme “are concerned for the future that their children are going to inherit.”

“Democracy doesn’t start and end with politicians,” she said.

“There are consultations, surveys, petitions to be signed - activism on the ground when pushing for change.

“In those PTAs, board meetings, committee rooms, no one can tell your story… or relay those problems (in your community) than you yourself.”

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