Guyana’s ‘troubles’ and the Good Friday Agreement

In a presentation given at a panel discussion at Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 2018, former president Bill Clinton claimed that ‘The Good Friday Agreement is a work of genius that’s applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy.’ According to Clinton, the agreement ‘called for real democracy – majority rule; minority rights; individual rights; the rule of law; the end of violence; shared political decision-making; shared economic benefits’. However, ‘The most interesting thing was that by creating a space for the identity and the interests and the values of all the people involved … it was a work of surpassing genius’. And former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the 1998 talks, stated that today we pay little ‘attention or tribute to those political leaders who do dare greatly and succeed’.

Like Guyana, Northern Ireland is one of those bicommunal societies (places in which two large groups control over 70% of the population) that is frequently plagued by socio/political tension. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the 30 year ‘troubles’ between the Protestants (unionists/loyalists who want continued and ever closer relations with Britain) and the Catholics (nationalists/republicans wanting a united Ireland) that began in the 1960s and ended with the loss of 3,600 lives. As president, Clinton was instrumental in the agreement being reached and thus could be excused some exaggeration. After all, a shared governance arrangement such as that which brought the warring sides together, had, since the mid 1960s, been thought to be essential if ethnically deeply divided societies are to progress.

The Good Friday Agreement was made possible by the parties agreeing to fudge the main issue surrounding Irish nationalism. Citizens were given the right to identify themselves as both British and Irish and a united Ireland was to materialise only when the majority of citizens voted for it.  An electoral system based upon proportional representation and open borders facilitated by both the United Kingdom and Ireland being in the European Union played positively to the national aspirations of both sides. Another interesting feature requires that upon taking their seats, members of the national assembly must declare themselves ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘others’ and cannot change that declaration more than once during a parliamentary year. Upon the presentation of a ‘Petition of Concern’ by a third of the members of the assembly, a cross-community vote (which means that separate majorities of unionists and nationalists must support the issue for it to be passed) can be put to the assembly by the speaker. The Northern Ireland Executive is co-chaired by a first minister and deputy first minister, who come from the two largest parties respectively and therefore cannot function if either party withdraws. Ministerial positions are allocated to other parties with significant representation in the national assembly.

The demand for some form of executive power-sharing in Guyana is met with, inter alia, the objection that executive power-sharing is not democracy and is only required when there is civil war and people are dying. We see that the former is far from being a universally accepted view and that when necessary this form of governance has been established by the mandarins of Westminster democracy themselves.  As for the latter objection, in relation to one year alone, Cheddi Jagan wrote in the West on Trial that ‘The toll for the 1964 disturbances was very heavy. About 2,668 families involving approximately 15,000 persons were forced to move their houses and settle in communities of their own ethnic group. The large majority were Indians. Over 1,400 homes were destroyed by fire. A total of 176 people were killed and 920 injured.’

Were it not that the radical socialist orientation of our then leaders had allowed the ethnic conflict to morph into a local geopolitical standoff between communism and capitalism with  international capitalism strongly supporting the minority ethnic group for nearly three decades until the fall of communism, the situation might have been worse. Note that as soon as a PNC government was no longer necessary and the West lifted its hands, that party was out of office and ethnic strife resumed. Thus, perhaps exaggerating somewhat, President David Granger claimed ‘Society has been scarred by violence, which left a lingering legacy of distrust with the potential of fresh disorder. Monuments at Bartica, Buxton and Eve Leary have been erected to the victims (1,431 by his count) of violence during the ‘troubles’ between 2002 and 2009. We still have an obligation to investigate those ‘troubles’ and ensure that the culprits are brought to justice’ (SN: 30/01/2018). Furthermore, one can only estimate the number of persons who have suffered and died as a result of our poverty, which is largely due to persistent political dissociation. The sugar workers are the latest group to suffer from an insufficiency of empathy at the executive governance table.

Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham and even Desmond Hoyte can be excused, as they lived at a time when knowledge about our kind of society was still sparse and in his second political life, Jagan did not last long. But the others cannot be and what is essentially needed are not more inquiries and merely adopting the pseudonym of the Northern Ireland problem: fundamental governance reform is required. Guyana needs a Good Friday Agreement but we have not yet been able to produce ‘political leaders who dare greatly and succeed’.

Necessary as they may be in deeply divided societies, these kinds of arrangements have proven difficult to implement.  The Good Friday Agreement was amended in 2006 and collapsed in January 2017 owing to the republicans’ withdrawal from the executive over a scandal in which a renewable energy scheme went massively over-budget (  Furthermore, the British vote to leave the European Union, which the majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland did not support, threw another spanner into the works, which could have led to the reinstating of hard regional borders, thus affecting the interest of the parties, but it appears that an agreement between the EU and the UK has helped to ease some concerns.

Executive shared governance sets the necessary operational framework for ethnically divided peoples to live and prosper but ethnic divisions are not easily transcended. Suppressed for nearly three decades by the PNC with the aid of international capital, ethnic division quickly again raised its head when the PPP came to power and while the violence has more or less ceased in Northern Ireland, almost every political narrative has become a battleground. A recent article in The Independent Online quoted Naomi Long, the leader of a small multi-community party, as claiming that at the height of the armed conflict politics was not as starkly divided as it is at present. Sounding very Guyanese, she stated ‘I think there has been a reliance on the use of the politics of fear, and using that as a rather lazy means to garner votes in elections, … The big political parties essentially ask people to vote for them to keep other people out, rather than as a positive expression of what their ambitions and aspirations for the future might be.’

Many believe that the parties are now locked in disputes over secondary issues, such as language rights, and that the agreement is necessary and will be revived. Speaking on the same panel as Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair claimed that concluding  the Good Friday Agreement took real courage and that for all its faults, it was ‘worth doing and worth keeping’.

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