The Good Friday Agreement is 10 years old but has the historic deal succeeded in changing the lives of working-class communities in Northern Ireland? BARRY McCAFFREY speaks to Loyalist and Nationalist community leaders to find out.JOHN Loughran works as an interface worker in north Belfast with former Loyalist and Republican prisoners. In February 1973 his uncle Jim Loughran was one of six unarmed Catholic men shot dead by British Army soldiers in controversial circumstances in the New Lodge area of north Belfast.More than 30 years on the New Lodge 6 families are campaigning for the British government to publicly apologize for killing of their loved ones.At present Loughran is part of a group of influential community leaders lobbying to ensure that the voices of working class communities are included in a U.S. business conference due to be held in Belfast next month."There are still major problems for us to overcome and we will undoubtedly face other setbacks along the way, but at least there are people still walking the streets who would not be alive today if it hadn't been for the Good Friday Agreement," he said.However, the north Belfast community worker believes that potential benefits were wasted in the years directly after the signing of the agreement."In reality the real gains have only started to be felt since Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley went into government last May. Before that there was a lot of good things said, but little of any real substance was achieved on the ground," he says."At least now people can see things moving forward with Sinn Fein and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) in government." Pointing to the need for working class communities to be included in the future redevelopment of Northern Ireland, he added, "No one is saying that we're now living in a society where everything is sweetness and light."There are some people out there who would like to see us all being dragged back to the bad old days. But I believe the vast majority of people want us to move forward."McGuinness and Paisley are working together, but it's important to see ordinary people on the ground working together."Billy "Twister" McQuiston is regarded as a senior figure within loyalism, having served 12 years in jail for Ulster Defense Association (UDA) offenses.In recent years McQuiston has been prominent in groundbreaking talks with Republican community workers and is regarded as having played a key part in the UDA's decision to stand down its organization last November."It's a positive thing that people aren't killing each other any more, but the sad thing is that the sectarianism has got worse in many ways," he said.However, the former UDA leader warns that within Protestant communities confidence for the Good Friday Agreement is now at an all-time low."Working-class Loyalist communities feel that they've got nothing from the signing of the agreement. Protestant people are still living in the same poor housing conditions, facing the same high unemployment that they were having to cope with 10 years ago," he said."People feel that nothing has changed for them and that they've been robbed of any of the benefits that we were promised by the agreement."Insisting that many working-class Protestants had little or no confidence in their political leaders at Stormont, McQuiston added, "We always knew that Paisley would go into government with Republicans if it meant that he was going to become first minister."Paisley and the DUP were always in it for themselves and no one else. In reality working-class Protestants have got precious little over the last 10 years."The challenge now is to make sure that they start to share in the benefits that they were promised from the agreement."Daniel Jack is a west Belfast community worker who has been prominent in the efforts to build improved relationships between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Republican communities since Sinn Fein's historic decision to support policing structures last January."The Good Friday Agreement may be 10 years older but the actual political process is still in its infancy, simply because Stormont was brought down by unionists on so many occasions," he feels."The reality is that the political situation has only been stabilized since Sinn Fein and the DUP went into government together last year."Things are still fragile and there are still outstanding issues to be resolved such as parades, the introduction of a Bill of Rights, the need for legislation to protect the Irish language and the transfer of policing and justice powers."Our communities need long term political stability so issues like housing, unemployment and healthcare can become the norm. There's still a long way to go, but there's no doubt there has been huge change over the last 10 years."At least now we aren't carrying coffins up the road to Milltown Cemetery every day of the week. The daily military saturation of Nationalist communities is a thing of the past."The British Army is no longer seen on our streets. Their spy posts and army barracks have been dismantled, the prisoners have been released and returned to work in the communities."These are all major changes, but the real change that we need now is for politicians to be able to do their jobs. We can't live in permanent fear of the institutions being collapsed every other day."People need to have confidence that the political institutions are here to stay."Mervyn Gibson served as a member of RUC Special Branch for 16 years before leaving the force to become a Presbyterian minister in 1998.In August 2001 he was asked to become chairman of the Loyalist Commission, an umbrella group bringing together UDA and UVF leaders together with Protestant church and community leaders. He has played a crucial role in bringing an end to successive Loyalist feuds and was the first senior Orangeman to hold talks with Sinn Fein.Last year he was nominated to join an influential cross-community working group which is trying to find a resolution to the issue of controversial parades."I was against the Belfast Agreement from the very beginning," he said."At least half of the Unionist community did not support the agreement so much of the last 10 years has been about ensuring that Republicans delivered on their promises and that Unionists were satisfied that the war was over. I believe both have now been achieved. "Meaningful engagement only began last year and even then rarely on the ground between the two communities. "I admit we are certainly in a better place than 10 years ago, but the real healing process still lies ahead. "We have to see whether or not normal political agreement, or more importantly this agreement, will fragment along sectarian lines as in the past or will everyone be committed to a new Northern Ireland of equality, tolerance and respect."The reality is that the two communities are only now getting down to the nitty gritty of working with one and other."
Best of Ireland
11 places in Ireland you have to visit