Last month, some 10,000 people in Belfast showed up to watch a play about the signing of a 25-year-old peace deal, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, both of whom were in town for a conference celebrating the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
While it might sound like an odd play to draw crowds, Agreement was a remarkable hit during its month-long run. The play, written by Owen McCafferty and directed by Charlotte Westenra at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, appeared at precisely a time when uncomfortable questions are being asked about the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
But across town from the Lyric Theatre, the debating chambers of Northern Ireland’s government have been empty for two years, the local assembly brought down by disagreements over trading arrangements between the European Union, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
How has a play that depicts the creation of these government institutions been captivating audiences, at a time when those institutions are not functioning?
In 1998, the signing of the agreement formally ended 30 years of ethnic and political conflict between the largely Catholic Nationalist population, who favoured Irish reunification, and the largely Protestant Unionist population, who favoured retaining the union with the United Kingdom. During the conflict, some 3,500 people lost their lives.
Northern Ireland is today a place that tourists happily visit and HBO films hit television shows. Belfast no longer conjures images of military occupation and sectarian violence. In this way, the peace agreement has been a remarkable success.
But while there are only rare and sporadic incidents of violence, tension and division persist. A quarter-century after the agreement, Northern Ireland is no longer at war, but it is not exactly at peace, either.
The play presents a fictionalized account of the three days leading up to April 10, 1998. While peace talks had been going on for years, those marathon negotiating sessions have become the stuff of legend. (Mitchell, who co-chaired the negotiations, once described the talks as “700 days of failure and one day of success.”)
According to Lyric Theatre’s executive director Jimmy Fay, not everyone was enthusiastic about the show before it debuted. “People got on their knees here, and begged me not to run it for as long as we were going to run it,” Fay says, acknowledging that early bookings for the show were slim.
Fay, who was born to Irish immigrants in The Pas, Man., and lived in Alberta before his family returned to Dublin when he was a child, says, however, “I knew there would be a tide.”
Through the artful direction of Westenra, the final days of negotiation are portrayed as an intricate ballet of rolling office desks, as the seven characters – all based on the real party leaders, prime ministers and politicians – spin circles around each other advocating their own needs.
Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement achieved a remarkable amount in its 35 pages – from the Irish Republican Army, the British Army and an array of Loyalist paramilitaries ending their war, to the largest Catholic and Protestant parties agreeing to share power in a form of mandated coalition government. Most difficult of all, some 500 prisoners – many serving lengthy sentences for murders and bombings – were released. (In the play, the character of Mitchell describes the process of managing the varying interests as “juggling knives and balloons.”)
Today, a bill working its way through British parliament would grant general amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles, including those committed by the security forces of the British state. Victims groups in Northern Ireland have nearly universally decried the bill.
For his part, playwright McCafferty did not approach the process of writing fictionalized dialogue for historical figures any differently than he does for his usual characters, the normal working-class people of Belfast.
“You can’t give them that type of importance. That would stop you right away,” McCafferty says “You just have to think about it in terms of the argument, it doesn’t really matter who is doing the arguing.”
Agreement marks something of a companion to an earlier McCafferty play, 2012′s Quietly, produced by Dublin’s venerated Abbey Theatre and then performed off-Broadway in New York. In that play two men, one the son of a Catholic killed in a 1974 pub bombing and the other the Protestant who planted the bomb, meet in that same Belfast pub in the present day and conduct their own peace process. They approach reconciliation quietly and privately, overseen by a neutral observer in the form of a Polish immigrant bartender.
Plays like Quietly and Agreement, according to Queen’s University Belfast drama lecturer Mark Phelan, are products of both the Good Friday Agreement’s success and its failure. Because the agreement did not create any systems for truth and reconciliation – it likely was not politically viable to do so at the time – the only mechanisms for this have been piecemeal and ad-hoc.
“The issue of victims and survivors was expediently sidelined, because it was too difficult to negotiate any kind of consensus,” Phelan says. Into this void have stepped a number of subjunctive, or “what if” plays, Phelan explains: What if perpetrators and victims of an atrocity got together to talk about what happened? What if we were in the room to hear how the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated?
“Artists have responded to the collective failure ... in different ways and a whole range of different artistic practices have provided really, I think, radical and provocative and very often generous and imaginative responses to the complexities of dealing with the past.”
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