An informal ‘Bring Bertie Back’ campaign appears to be underway within Fianna Fáil, as Donegal senator Niall Blaney posited at a recent parliamentary meeting that former Taoiseach and party leader Bertie Ahern, who left the party amid significant controversy, should be brought back into the fold.
Mr Blaney argued that there was a pressing need for the party to “own” the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but the agreement isn’t owned by any one party, it belongs to the people across this island, and it is they who should be front and centre of next year's milestone event.
The three-term Taoiseach was instrumental during the Northern Ireland peace process, but rather than reclaim their stripes as a party who helped deliver peace, bringing Bertie back does more to highlight Fianna Fáil’s decade-long failure to fill the Northern Ireland knowledge gap his role helped to level.
With just seven months until the landmark 25th anniversary of the agreement, the enthusiasm for Mr Ahern’s return points to a lack of direction over how to approach this moment in history.
As the party gathers for its Ard Fheis this weekend, under the backdrop of the North's SDLP officially ending their partnership with Fianna Fáil, the party membership may have to reconsider its approach not just to the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but to the North in general.
That the anniversary is falling during a period of sustained political instability cannot be ignored, but the answers to the North’s problems won’t all be found by only looking backwards. When it comes to marking our imperfect peace, there has historically been a tendency to call on those who had been in the room in 1998, and next year appears set to be no different.
For the 20th anniversary, Queen’s University Belfast hosted a large-scale event with key architects – albeit with a significant gender disparity, which rendered Professor Monica McWilliams the sole representative of the significant contributions made by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and the many women peace builders involved.
Given that the heightened levels of political good will and compromise we witnessed in 1998 have never been successfully replicated, one can easily see why the negotiators are so readily called upon. But this is no longer 1998; A whole generation have grown up under the cover the Good Friday Agreement, and it is now their shoulders on which the next stage of the peace process rests.
While discourse remains rooted in dogmatic politics, evidence demonstrates that the North’s young people hold a different set of priorities. A survey conducted by the Open University earlier this year showed that 67% of those aged 18 to 34 years old consider health and wellbeing to be the greatest societal challenge facing Northern Ireland. This was followed by sustainability (59%), and inequality in opportunity (56%).
This appetite for urgent intervention and co-operation on areas including health and climate is mirrored by research done by the Northern Ireland Youth forum, in which the overwhelming majority of participants cited education, human rights, and climate as their key priorities, with just 7% stating any interest in the legacy of the past or Brexit.
The peace process has gifted an entire generation with the space and freedom to evaluate their lives and environments unburdened by the trauma and weight of the past. This has invariably led to new outlook – one centred on commonality and solidarity regarding key issues affecting all the people of Northern Ireland.
The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement should spark the flame of renewed focus on peacebuilding and reconciliation; This can’t be a moment of reminiscing about the glory days and patting each other on the back.
We have to face the reality that the vast majority of the Good Friday Agreement has not been implemented, that core provisions aimed at building social cohesion have been allowed to languish, and that the institutions are barely functioning. The cycle of failed commitments and stop-start politics needs to be broken, and key to doing so is enlisting the next generation of peacebuilders to pick up the mantel.
With the anniversary looming large, and our mounting need to recapture the spirit of 1998 at its most urgent, the Irish government should be facilitating an ambitious and inclusive programme of events across the island.
By creating a specific funding line in the Department of Foreign Affairs for civic society, academia, and the arts, the Irish government could energise their communities and networks to run their own programmes and events.
In addition, a 12-month reformation of the North’s doomed Civic Forum could be established to provide a much-needed space for dialogue around the next stage of the peace process. And to commemorate the significance of the resounding “yes” vote in 1998, people’s memorials should be constructed in the North and South recognising that it was not solely the work of politicians, but the people of Ireland as a whole who delivered peace.
As for Bertie, he almost certainly has valuable perspectives to offer, but the 25th anniversary should prioritise focusing our attention on the future. It’s critical that the next generation be given the opportunity to lead us there – we won’t always have the leaders of the peace process to guide us.