This weekend in Belfast, many people will be reflecting back on what some call ‘The Good Friday Agreement’ – and others call ‘The Belfast Agreement’. For most it was an historic moment where decades of conflict and enmity seemed to be coming to an end. For others – it was a compromise too far – selling out on long-held beliefs or on the sacrifice of hundreds of lives.
It was an extraordinary time. My memory is that until the very last moment, most people did not think that an agreement could be reached. Many previous attempts had failed.
Within days of the Agreement being signed – and before the referendum on the agreement – I headed off to the USA with twelve colleagues from across the broad education sector to look at ‘Civic Education’ in the USA. We weren’t entirely sure what that was, but we did have a feeling – as educators – that our role was changing, and that we would need to respond to a different political dispensation and help to build a shared future.
During the visit we traveled to Minnesota – a place most of us had to look up on a map – where we came across a project called ‘Public Achievement’ – operating out of the Hubert H Humphrey Center in the University of Minnesota, and a school called St Bernard’s.
My abiding memory is that we had discovered something which whilst it appeared very similar to a lot of other projects we had looked at in Washington DC – was somehow different. The students in St Bernard’s spoke eloquently about their ‘action projects’ – and with words that fit their mouths. In other schools, the students sounded scripted. When we asked questions the students didn’t know the answer to, the teachers didn’t rescue them. The students got excited, because we got them to think about things that hadn’t occurred to them. They were owning their own learning.
The rest is a very long story, but in brief, we took the idea home, tweaked the model and established Public Achievement in Northern Ireland. The relationship with Minnesota has blossomed – well beyond the team at Public Achievement.
One of my strongest memories was coming home and going out to vote in favour of the Agreement in the referendum that was held in Northern Ireland and also in the Irish Republic. I got such a buzz from it – it really felt like the world was about to change. I met a friend as I was leaving and she was coming to vote – and she was every bit as excited as I was. Voting has never felt the same since!
The intervening years have seen Belfast change beyond recognition – as well as much of Northern Ireland – particularly the border areas where all the former apparatus of ‘security’ has long since gone. Tourists and new residents have come to this place, giving it a buzz and feeling of diversity that was sadly missing for most of my life. I also feel severe frustration and disappointment at the hold which sectarianism still has over much of life here – including the organisation of my city and the education of our children. The Agreement was a masterpiece of ambiguity – meaning different things to different groups – and giving a political structure that allowed some level of self-governance for the first time in a generation. Yet this very system has stagnated politics – decision making is constipated and bureaucracy strangles creativity and innovation.
In balance – we are in a much, much better place. We still have far to go.