In a year when we mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we spoke to Quintin Oliver, the man who headed up the ‘YES’ campaign to the peace deal in 1998, to hear his thoughts on Northern Ireland’s current political situation. Almost twelve months have elapsed since the Stormont Executive collapsed but let’s not despair, he says. Since 1998, amongst other things, Quintin went on to found and direct Stratagem public affairs in Belfast, alongside its sister company Stratagem International.
On Northern Ireland politics in 2017
I started by asking Quintin for his take on Northern Ireland politics over the past twelve months. 2017, he explained, was “less than ideal, in political terms… but let’s not despair – the peace process has plateaued, not collapsed. We are gridlocked by the very clever safety mechanisms we built into the Good Friday Agreement – checks and balances against unfair majority rule by either side; mutual vetoes; no solo runs; petitions of concern, equality impacts and so on.”
The challenge now, he continued, is “to reconstruct the edifice in new times – that requires confidence, commitment and common purpose. It also needs significant public engagement – we’ve been deprived of wider citizen participation in recent years and it shows.”
The death of Martin McGuinness
It was not long after Martin McGuinness’s resignation in January that he retired from politics altogether due to ill health and passed away in March. When asked, Quintin described the gap left by Martin McGuinness’s absence as huge – “he was a strategist, not just a smart tactician; McGuinness was always looking for openings, opportunities to move forward and generate momentum. I worked with him abroad on other conflicts and learned a lot about him and his unwavering commitment to bold two-way leadership (outwards to your adversaries, but also inwards to your base).
“We miss those skills, although to suggest that all would be functioning were he still around, is facile. Sinn Féin can and will adjust, just as unionism must. Nothing is simple, nothing straightforward, but I do become irritated at this anti-politics mood that has become so pervasive, even amongst those who should know better.”
20 years after Good Friday
Back in 1998, having given up his day job in the voluntary sector, to head up the YES campaign to the Good Friday Agreement, the peace project was obviously something that mattered to Quintin. As we approach the GFA’s twentieth anniversary and Stormont stands dormant, what are his thoughts on the situation?
“We saw the 1998 Agreement as a bird with two wings, each of which needed to fly together; the wings are now damaged but not irrevocably. We’ve lost only seven of the 20 years since 1998 – although this last has been the most frustrating as citizen disillusionment has rocketed.
“Nevertheless, I believe the challenges of the Irish language, RHI, equal marriage, legacy of the past, even the ‘respect agenda’ are all amenable to practicable solutions. Just think Syria, Kurdistan or even Catalonia to compare our little knotty problems with the more intractable variety.
“It’s Brexit that’s cataclysmic here, in terms of its complexity and divisiveness – whatever side you’re on; what we’re hearing at Stratagem is that organisations are apprehensive about decisions being reached by default not by design; they want a lucid, compelling voice to advance and protect their social, economic and cultural interests.”
What will it take to make politics work here?
Given the current stalemate, do we need a Good Friday Agreement mark 2, I asked. Quintin replied: “I argued as long ago as 2003, with South African negotiator Roelf Meyer, that we needed to refresh the 1998 model, even before Mark Durkan’s prescient ‘ugly scaffolding’ observations in 2008. Of course, the GFA represents both ‘creative ambiguity’ and a compromise of its moment and needs updated.
“Let’s take the parties and the supportive governments and other key actors – and our representative social partner organisations, CBI, ICTU, UFU and NICVA – away from home, no media, no cell phones, no badgering by constituents, no distractions.
“Of course a credible international mediator would help to marshal the players, steer a course and navigate through to the frameworks we need. I’ve seen Cyril Ramaphosa, now ANC leader at work – if only he weren’t otherwise distracted! Likewise, the impressive Juan Maria Santos of Colombia, Barack Obama, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia – there is a raft of willing facilitators.”
What about the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly?
A popular topic debated on Northern Slant has been that of whether a Citizens’ Assembly should replace MLAs. Our Deputy Editor, Jamie Pow argued “if MLAs failed to govern, send in the citizens.” In the absence of the Executive, does Quintin think this is something to be considered?
He said, “There are lots of deliberative tools available to enhance and deepen participatory democracy; I have practiced many of them through the Consultation Institute that I helped set up in 2002 and now chair; the key however, is that they must complement electoral democracy not replace it. Talk of an unelected Citizens’ Assembly replacing Stormont is fanciful, but for generating new solutions to old problems you can’t beat it!”
Is Northern Ireland’s peace a worthy example for others?
From Cyprus to Colombia, for years Northern Ireland’s peace process has been viewed as an example to be replicated. As someone who is invited around the globe to explore other conflicts, I asked if this is still the case. To this, Quintin said: “it’s embarrassing sometimes to hear the praise for our progress.”
Still, he continued, “it remains an important benchmark – almost complete absence of political violence and associated paramilitary trappings, agreed human rights-based policing, power-sharing consociationalism (at least theoretically) and so on. I’m amazed how relevant our skills remain in the Syrian, Colombian, DRC, Philippines and Cyprus cases as just a handful of examples.
“We can share our insights and learning – and we always learn ourselves, too – in some respects Colombia has dealt with legacy, gender and DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) better than we have.”
Also published on Medium.