On Sunday 28 March 1982, I was finishing an essay on Brian Friel's play, The Freedom Of The City, at home in Derry. It was just after lunch, a bright, brisk day. The play is based on the events of another Sunday – Bloody Sunday – which also took place in Derry in 1972 when 13 civil rights marchers were shot dead by members of the Parachute Regiment. I was a child then but I remember my father saying to a friend as they left morning Mass that there would be a few sore heads by night-time. While I lingered over my essay, word came through that Norman Duddy, a neighbour of ours, had been shot dead coming out of Strand Road Presbyterian Church. He had just got in to his car when two IRA men on a motorcycle drew up and began firing. His two young sons, Mark and David, were in the car at the time.
Ironically, the Duddy family had recently moved out of our neighbourhood and crossed to the east bank of Derry's River Foyle for security reasons. But their place of worship was on the west bank, the time of service fixed and his commitment to his church strong. Norman Duddy was a policeman.
In a single afternoon, politics and theatre, public and private life were brought into stark and terrible relief. Nearly everybody living in that part of the world at that time has a story to tell but I hadn't thought of that particular March Sunday until the recent flurry of commemoration around the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The anniversary is, of course, just cause for reflective celebration; there are people alive today who would be lying with the silent dead had the British, Irish and US governments failed to cajole, court and coerce Northern Ireland's political parties into signing up to peace.
Yet, as the various memoirs reach the bookshelves and the commemorative television programmes fill the schedules, it is worth resisting the tide of self-congratulation to ask exactly what has been achieved now that "hope and history" appear finally to have rhymed.
"Belfast is booming" can be written without irony; investment is increasing. The watch towers have gone; the body count is no more. The "Chuckle Brothers"– Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness – a latter-day, if somewhat sinister, Morecambe and Wise, preside over a devolved assembly at Stormont. Tourism is a genuine proposition once again. Streets once infamous as murder spots are now up there with the Giant's Causeway as must-sees on a kind of gruesome, far-beyond-irony, bus tour. So what's to complain about?
Surely any agreement worth the name has to offer future generations the prospect of a transformed society, somewhere that has not just learned its lesson but acted upon it. It has to be much more than a photo-opportunity for politicians. It has to be about much more than putting away guns.
What the Good Friday Agreement has certainly achieved is the near-annihilation of what used to be called constitutional political parties. The SDLP and Ulster Unionists are in the wilderness because violence has been seen to pay.
Perhaps the most telling moment in Jonathan Powell's recent memoir and accompanying BBC2 promotional love-in, comes when Seamus Mallon of the SDLP quotes the "Undercover Diplomat" as saying of Mallon's party that "the problem with you guys is that you don't have guns". At a stroke, the whole ethos of constitutional politics turned to dust. It wasn't the SDLP that had mortared Downing Street. It wasn't David Trimble who marched his men up the hill and marched them back down again. So if you want to get ahead, get a gun.
We should bear this in mind when the deals are done, as they inevitably will be done, with terrorist organisations across the globe. Terror works. Nothing like it to focus the mind. Shoot them coming out of churches; bomb them in restaurants; play trick or treat with a machine-gun in a pub. Stick at it long enough and the next thing you know, you're taking a brief from a civil servant and climbing into a chauffeur-driven car. And wasn't it worth it all? Say no more about the 32-county socialist republic or the never, never, never. That's the past. Now, who will we send to St Patrick's Day at the White House this year?
In the meantime, Northern Ireland remains a segregated society. We choose to educate our children in separate faith schools; we live and socialise separately, for the most part; we still vote shades of orange, shades of green. It is a land of polite apartheid. Will that encourage future generations to stay? Will that ensure that the brightest and the best put their shoulders to the wheel of civic, political, cultural and economic development? Is the Good Friday Agreement really a model for the future? Was it really that good a Friday?Reuse content