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The Belfast agreement: it’s only words
Eamonn McCann, 27 May 2003
The Bee Gees don’t usually get much of a look-in when it comes to the conflict in the North, so I was more than pleased to quote from their oeuvre when speaking in the House of Commons about The Agreement a couple of weeks back.
“It’s only words,” I remarked. The creator of The Agreement, Shane Cullen, nodded sagely by my side.
Cullen’s massive piece, The Agreement, was on show at the Beaconsfield in Vauxhall. Myself and a number of extremely high-powered artistic people – so high-powered I couldn’t understand a word some of them were saying –had been invited to invade the ornate splendour of the Grand Committee Room to talk about its meaning.
What put the Gibbs boys in my mind was the remark of an aide to a Labour MP as we’d ambled across Westminster Hall earlier: “Ironic eh? All brought down by one little word.”
On the other hand, I murmured, “It could have been any of 11,500 words.”
I’d learned from the Beaconsfield brochure that that’s the number of words in the Belfast Agreement. Using a laser device, over a number of years, Cullen painstakingly routed each of them into 56 high-density urethane panels which he then sprayed with industrial paint. The finished work is about three metres high and 67 metres long. When it was shown at the Project in Dublin last year, the most common point of reference was the Washington memorial to Americans dead from the war on Vietnam.
At the Golden Thread in Belfast and the Orchard in Derry earlier this year, where the panels had to be installed in cramped, angular arrangement, the feeling was of a maze you might get lost in the middle of, which was rather apt, I thought. It had originally been intended the Derry showing would be in the even more apt Guildhall, venue of civil rights rallies, sectarian wrangles and the opening night of Translations. But that space has become the semi-permanent setting of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, The Agreement displaced by the persistence of issues the Belfast Agreement was intended to resolve.
At Beaconsfield, the panels were flat against the exposed brick walls of an expansive oblong space, giving the effect of a vast burial chamber entombing the viewer. Sepulchral air eddied eerily each time a train rattled past.
The meaning of The Agreement differs from place to place and person to person. Than which, nothing apter is imaginable.
The peace process, of which the Belfast Agreement was codification and culmination, emptied politics of ideas and substituted words. The conflict wasn’t resolved but defined out of existence. Finding formulae to accomodate contradictory identities was now all. Between the idea and the reality fell the word.
The point of the primacy of the word was to give endless expression to two separate identities without either assuming greater legitimacy than the other. Words no longer conveyed ideas but became substitutes for ideas.
It is when words are all we have that one word can bring an edifice down. The Provos said that paramilitary activity “should” cease. Blair wanted “will”. Blair didn’t doubt the Provos’ commitment to constitutional politics. He didn’t fear a resumption of armed struggle. As far as action was concerned, he was content. But action wasn’t enough. He wanted words.
The election scheduled for May 29th was cancelled because the underlying issue couldn’t be put to the people. Under the Belfast Agreement, issues can safely be put to the people only after a form of words has been devised to present them to both Unionists and Nationalists in ways which enable each to feel satisfied that its identity and interests have been vindicated.
Ambiguity in art can illuminate contradictions and even, at an imaginative level, provide a resolution. Ambiguity in politics serves only to conceal contradictions. Cullen’s Agreement is more substantial than the Agreement negotiated at Stormont five years ago, which was, we can surely now see, only words.