Derry Girls' Good Friday Agreement refresher offers a timely reminder of what's at stake

The final episode of 'Derry Girls' did more to educate viewers in Britain about the Good Friday Agreement than in all their time in school.
Derry Girls' Good Friday Agreement refresher offers a timely reminder of what's at stake

Derry Girls cast: (L-R) Orla Mccool (Louisa Clare Harland), (James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn), Deirdre Mallon (Amelia Crowley),Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan) , Sarah Mccool (Kathy Kiera Clarke),Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), Mary Quinn (Tara Lynne O’Neill), Gerry Quinn (Tommy Tiernan), Cara (Darcey McNeeley), Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney), Gerladine Devlin (Philippa Dunne).

“What if all this becomes a ghost story? A ghost story they’ll hardly believe?” posits Granda Joe, as Derry Girls comes to a fitting end with an hour-long special focusing on the vote that changed history: The Good Friday referendum. 

In between the laughter and 90s hits, writer and creator Lisa McGee’s clarion call was clear; we were given the gift of peace, now it’s our responsibility to protect it.

The iconic coming-of-age series set against the backdrop of the Troubles has become not only Channel 4’s most successful sitcom since Father Ted, but an educational resource as well, weaving a violent and harrowing account of the region’s history with a familiar and relatable tale of friendship. 

Lesson

Social media was flooded with chatter following the hopeful and poignant conclusion of the special episode, with many viewers from the UK exclaiming that they had learned more about the Good Friday Agreement in the last five minutes of the episode than they had in school — a damning indictment of the British curriculum’s failings in adequately representing the history of Ireland and the North. 

A comedy series should never need to serve as the primary vehicle with which to properly educate the population about something of such grave importance, relevance, and wide-reaching socio-political effects. 

But when done with the precision and wit, which Lisa McGee has long employed in her work, it’s clear that a slice-of-life television sitcom can have the potential to achieve what few textbooks are capable of, by reaching a whole new generation who came for the laughs but stuck around for the lesson.  When reflecting on the success of the show, brimming with a supporting cast of characters who so aptly portray the many colourful personalities ubiquitous throughout the North — we have all avoided eye contact with an “Uncle Colm” at one point or another — it’s clear that those 30-minute episodes can’t simply be confined to comedy, drama or any genre in between.

Rather they serve as a window into the prismatic tenacity of the people of Northern Ireland, who despite the horrors of the Troubles, continued to hold out hope.

The finale achieved what the show has always done best, by blending some high drama — Erin and Orla’s joint birthday being overshadowed by Jenny’s ‘Jennywood’ party — with exponentially more serious themes carefully sprinkled throughout. The opening scenes feature Orla getting her electoral card, along with a copy of the Good Friday Agreement, and herein lies an important lesson; A copy of the Good Friday Agreement was given to every voter and household ahead of the election, so people would be able to make an unambiguously informed decision on what was to undeniably be history in the making, 71.1% voted ‘yes’. 

Contrasts

Contrast that with the Brexit referendum, which was rife with misinformation, disinformation and inflamed rhetoric while delivering absolutely no concrete detail to the electorate as to the actual outworkings of such a vote. It is perhaps unsurprising then, given the seriousness with which the North’s electorate approached the 1998 referendum, that despite not having information to disseminate, we voted “no”.

 Watching the scenes in which titular characters interrogate the content of the Agreement, including Granda Joe with his cluttered board outlining what the key provisions mean, or Aunt Sarah with her explanation that “You can be Irish, you can be British, or you can be bi", or Michelle and Erin’s interactions concerning the release of prisoners all served as poignant reminders of the enormous leap of faith that people took in 1998. 

 Nicola Coughlan is immortalised forever as the “wee lesbian” of Derry Girls with the mural outside the Dublin gay bar The George. Picture: Gareth Chaney /Collins Photos
 Nicola Coughlan is immortalised forever as the “wee lesbian” of Derry Girls with the mural outside the Dublin gay bar The George. Picture: Gareth Chaney /Collins Photos

After decades of violence, the idea of a sudden peace seemed fantastical to some, unimaginable to others and virtually impossible to most. And yet, people wanted to believe that - in the words of Seamus Heaney — a “further shore is reachable from here,” and so they paddled.

Seeing many of the characters who viewers have come to adore shuffling into their polling booths to vote “yes” for the Good Friday Agreement in the closing scenes was incredibly emotive. It would be a challenge not to dream along with them of a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. How different things are today? 

Whilst much of the Agreement remains either poorly implemented or entirely unimplemented, a generation has now grown up under the gift of peace, and evidence continues to demonstrate that this generation – the Good Friday Agreement generation — hold a wholly reimagined set of priorities, focusing not on the past, but on building upon the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement to make real of the concept of a shared future.

Impact

I was 10-years old when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I had no way of knowing then just how much the Agreement would shape my life, nor that one day I would be in court defending it, but then — I am a Derry Girl. The show may be over, but it has left us with a timely reminder that there is always hope; As Erin said: “Even if our dreams do get broken along the way, we have to make new ones from the pieces.” 

We are living through the most serious threat to the gains of the peace process to date. Brexit has disrupted the delicate equilibrium of North-South, East-West relations, and in the past week alone, the British government has announced unilateral actions to breach international law and override Agreements regarding legacy and the Northern Ireland protocol, all under the guise of “protecting the Good Friday Agreement”, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Orla Mccool (Louisa Clare Harland), (Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson) in 'Derry Girls'.
Orla Mccool (Louisa Clare Harland), (Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson) in 'Derry Girls'.

This isn’t about the people of Northern Ireland or the peace process; It’s about the selfish-strategic interests of a Conservative government pursuing the hardest Brexit possible, and it’s about the DUP, who serve only themselves. The Good Friday Agreement was not forged by grandstanding, threats, and unilateral action — it was fostered by generosity of spirit and compromise.

In 1998, there were 11-year-old schoolchildren reading the full text of the Good Friday Agreement in class due to the extraordinary significance and importance held in its pages. At some point, that enthusiasm for the landmark Agreement began to wane, taking along with it any consistent representation in our educational systems. Peace is a process with many bumps along the way; Once again we have no functioning Assembly, with the DUP standing outside the gates of Stormont in protest just as they did in opposition to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. If ever there was a moment to pick up the pieces of our broken aspirations for the future espoused in the pages of the Good Friday Agreement, it is this moment.   

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