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Apr 12th, 2023

‘Hope where there was fear’: Sharing voices from Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement

By 38 Degrees team

This week, Northern Ireland celebrates a truly momentous date: 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Signed on April 10, 1998, this peace agreement between the Irish Government, British Government and representatives of both Unionist and Republican groups in Northern Ireland brought an end to a 30-year conflict which cost over 3,700 lives. After being drawn up by politicians, the agreement was voted into place by more than 676,000 people in Northern Ireland, with the constitutional amendments it required also endorsed by nearly 1.5 million people in the Republic.

It’s a historic anniversary, 25 years since a country torn apart by violence came together for peace, and it is rightly being celebrated across the world, with the likes of US President Joe Biden visiting both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to mark the date. But while celebrations from international leaders filled the headlines, 38 Degrees and our partner organisation Act Now wanted to remind the world that this peace is people-powered.

Set up with the support of 38 Degrees and Uplift – which campaigns for positive change in the Republic of Ireland – Act Now is the first people-powered, independent campaigning community in Northern Ireland. Its members act together to create what no one can achieve alone: a society, economy and democracy that serves everyone.

And what illustrates the power of acting together more than the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement made possible by the hundreds of thousands of people who gave it their support? Despite huge personal sacrifices, and no guarantee of success, 71% of people in Northern Ireland took a leap of faith and voted yes for the Good Friday Agreement, and for peace.

The road to agreement was rocky and painful, and it has been ever since, with work at Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly currently on hold because of a boycott by the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). This deep-freeze to democracy puts the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement at risk – but we know the people who made the Good Friday Agreement a reality won’t allow its meaning to be forgotten.

That’s why we worked with Act Now to share memories and stories from their supporters which show just why the Agreement was so important. Their words are deeply moving, a reminder for all of us of the horrors the people of Northern Ireland suffered and the power of the peace they created together.

Asked what the Good Friday Agreement meant to them and their families, many Act Now supporters shared memories of the exact moment they cast their vote:

  • Nial Pickering, Newry and Armagh: “I was 18 and this was the first vote I ever cast. It meant peace, peace and peace. It started NI on the road to a better future. And the difficulties we have faced are as nothing to the heartache, the tragedy and the pain that filled the world before that day.”
  • Elizabeth McCausland, Fermanagh and South Tyrone: “It brought hope where there had been fear and despair. We lived through a 30-year period where the threat of violence and death were ever present. Most of us knew someone who had died or were injured. People didn’t want to visit here and companies didn’t want to invest in a war zone. All of that changed after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
    “I remember the day I went to vote in the referendum. I was suffering from agoraphobia and rarely left my home but I knew how much was at stake, so I plucked up the courage to leave the house. It was the first time I ever exercised my right to vote because it was something worth voting for. Northern Ireland is not perfect now and we still live in a divided country. The worry that sectarian violence will return is a real and ever present fear but those of us who remember what life was like prior to the Good Friday Agreement will continue to defend our peace.”

Others spoke about what the Agreement meant not just to them, but to their children:

  • Nikki Elliott, Lagan Valley: “It meant our daughter was brought up in NI without the sounds of bombs, without being searched going into shops, without being unable to go out as it wasn’t ‘safe’ to be in pubs/towns. Without having guns pointed at her and questions asked of her when she was going out to see friends. Without having the spectre of death over her parents every time they went to work. Without worrying about who she was friends with.”
  • Terri McGrattan, Foyle: “It meant my children didn’t grow up with bombs, bullets and guns on the streets every day like me nor did they have to witness what I did as a child, teenager and adult. This changed our lives for the better in more ways than one.”
  • Elizabeth Henry, South Antrim: “Our children reached adulthood in a safe environment and our locally based grandchildren have grown up knowing only a predominantly peaceful society. For us this has been so important and we feel so incensed that there are people prepared to put that in jeopardy for the sake of party politics. We owe it to all the young people of Northern Ireland to vigorously defend the Good Friday Agreement and the progress we have been able to make.”

We’re sharing these words far and wide this week, as we work with Act Now to ensure the legacy of this vital Agreement doesn’t get left behind. 

You can find out more about Act Now here, or add your name to their petition calling on the DUP to end their boycott and return to Stormont, preserving the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, here.

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