Good Friday has always been one of my favourite days of the year, a day of quiet and reflection, but also a day I tend to associate with Spring flowers, longer days and with the prospect of better days (and weather) ahead. From Good Fridays past spent in my Nana’s childhood home in Donegal, then as a teenager in Portstewart, to more recent years spent in Brighton or even further afield, long walks on the beach have been a fairly constant Good Friday theme for me. I no longer swim, the early Donegal days put an end to such foolhardiness at this time of year! I want though to go back to 10 April 1998, the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and to share some reflections as someone born and bred in Northern Ireland, and with a long-term interest in culture, identity and language rights in deeply divided and post-conflict societies.
So where was I on the 10 April 1998 when the Belfast Agreement (as it is formally known) was signed? Fortunately I was back home from university, and so did not miss out on the excitement, nervousness and anticipation that preceded the announcement of an Agreement between the British and Irish governments, and between eight of the political parties (but excluding the DUP). Home was a place called Eglinton, home of the airport, on the outskirts of Derry/Londonderry, and home to many of those affected by the Greysteel ‘Trick or Treat’ Halloween killings, which had a huge impact on me as a first year law student studying ‘over the water’ and living away from home for the first time. I missed out a lot on what was happening back home whilst at university. I remember on a trip back panicking because I had not brought my driving licence with me, and my sister asked me why I needed it. I responded ‘Well, in case there is a checkpoint’, to which her response was ‘We don’t have checkpoints any more.’ Indeed it was only when watching the latest series of Derry Girls that I realised the significance of the Bill Clinton visit a few years ago had pretty much passed me by, at least at the time!
By the time the first anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement came around, I was already working and studying at Queen’s University Belfast on projects directly related to the Agreement itself with its many references to minority rights, language rights, community rights, as well as individual rights and the right to self-determination. And so began my journey into the field of minority rights and of wrestling with questions of rights and identities, different mechanisms to protect and promote these, and challenges to recognition, as well as with implementation.
How far then have we come? As someone who was working on language rights and on the Bill of Rights well over a decade ago, including as a legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights Forum, I must confess to having switched to the role of passive bystander. I am eagerly awaiting the outcome of various processes initiated over the last few years, including those linked to New Decade, New Approach, which was announced January 2020 with much fanfare and only limited awareness of the looming pandemic that would soon engulf us. As an erstwhile contributor but now observer of Northern Ireland politics and debates, I have long kept an eye on developments mainly through alerts on my Twitter feed or via google email alerts. However, the pandemic has created new opportunities to (re-)engage, and this blog is a small step forward for me on that journey back.
As we await in particular the final reports of both the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Traditions (concluded, but not yet published) and the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights (not yet concluded), there are two questions that I (as a no longer quite so passive observer) will be asking. What provisions and protections are already in place, and what is the added value of any new proposals and/or recommendations? In my view the time for a symbolic Bill of Rights has long passed, yet the limits of the Human Rights Act 1998 are so well known that it is clear that additional rights protections are needed. This is especially the case for Northern Ireland given its ‘particular circumstances’, and the tensions that are simmering very close to the surface thanks to Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As a minority rights researcher, I am of course particularly interested in debates over the future of culture, identity and language rights debates. My recent research on minority and community rights in the Western Balkans has highlighted a range of different ways that such rights can be ‘internalised’ in domestic law,* with previous research (and publications) even considering the role of a right to a cultural identity in any UK-wide Bill of Rights, as well as the relevance of European minority rights standards for a future Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. There would appear to be many possible options going forward, but whether the political will is there to move beyond the current stalemate remains to be seen. We can but hope, and as we remember Good Friday and the depths of despair of the disciples, we also look forward to Easter Sunday and the new dawn as we emerge slowly from the pandemic and a time of much (also Brexit-related) turbulence.
Postscript: Just after I first posted this, I attended an event organised by Arts and North Down Borough Council in conjunction with Remembering Srebrenica UK. The theme was ‘Bosnia and its Relevance to Northern Ireland’, with such a powerful testimony from Nedzad Avdic, a Srebrenica survivor. It reminded me in a very powerful way of why rights and their protection matter, and how we really need to internalise lessons from the past and from elsewhere. His story illustrated so vividly why it matters.
*Craig, Elizabeth (2021) The framework convention for the protection of national minorities and internalisation: lessons from the Western Balkans. Review of Central and East European Law, 46 (1). pp. 1-40. ISSN 0925-9880 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/89872/