If there’s one thing all communities in Northern Ireland can agree on, it’s that their political institutions – created under a landmark 1998 peace deal – should work better.
The region has been without a government for about 40 per cent of the nearly quarter of a century since David Trimble, who died last month, succeeded in pushing the then unionist majority to accept power-sharing in the Good Friday Agreement when he was leader of Ulster. The Unionist Party.
With local politics again on the rocks – Northern Ireland has not had a fully functioning devolved leader for six months due to a row over the implementation of Brexit trade arrangements – calls for a renewal of the landmark agreement are growing as the 25th anniversary of its signing approaches.
“Some of the mechanisms in the Good Friday Agreement are as destructive to Northern Ireland’s success as they are helpful, because one party can pull down the house of cards,” said Niamh Gallagher, a lecturer in British and Irish history at Cambridge University. – It must absolutely be abolished.
The Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, and established a framework for the region’s institutions, as well as for Northern-Southern Irish and British-Irish cooperation. All three are currently under load.
The agreement has been updated since 1998, but the principle that both unionist and nationalist communities must share power in the executive government – and that if one side does not agree, the other cannot do it alone – remains sacrosanct.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which champions Northern Ireland’s continued place in Britain and was the region’s biggest political force until it was dethroned by the nationalist Sinn Féin party in May’s election, has paralyzed the executive since February. It is trying to force an end to Brexit controls on goods coming in from the UK.
Since May, the DUP has gone further, even refusing to allow the region’s assembly to function, an opposition that could lead to new elections within months.
According to the Good Friday Agreement, important decisions taken by the power-sharing leader need cross-community support. The agreement also guarantees that there can be no changes to Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the population in the region.
The DUP has argued that its opposition to the post-Brexit trade deal cannot therefore be ignored.
The British government agrees, saying that Northern Ireland’s delicate balance between communities has been upset and the Good Friday Agreement so undermined that trade arrangements for the region agreed with Brussels, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, must be torn up.
It was the basis of a bill introduced in Westminster in June by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the front-runner to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and backed by her Conservative leader rival Rishi Sunak.
But some Northern Ireland experts have said London is twisting the truth.
“The UK government has adopted a one-sided analysis of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement,” wrote Andrew McCormick, a former top Northern Ireland Brexit official, in a new article for the Irish think tank Institute of International and European Affairs.
He said the government would set a “dangerous precedent to respond to one side’s refusal to participate in the institutions by granting a concession in their favour”.
No unionist politicians support the protocol, saying the arrangement, which left Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods and imposed controls on their entry into the region, undermines its place in the UK.
However, the UK’s solution – to tear up parts of the protocol – is at odds with the views of the majority of lawmakers elected to the Stormont assembly who see it as workable, albeit with some tweaks.
A quarter of a century after the fear and hope that the Good Friday Agreement represented, the agreement remains the only workable solution to address the concerns of both communities.
But politicians, former civil servants and academics say it could be updated, not least to recognize that Northern Ireland’s old binary political preferences are changing.
The Alliance Party, which does not align itself with either party and more than doubled its seats in May to become the third largest political force, wants reforms to ensure an end to “ransom politics”. Sinn Féin collapsed its leadership from 2017-22 in a row due to a botched energy scheme.
“The logic of the Good Friday agreement remains compelling,” said Rory Montgomery, a former senior Irish diplomat and member of the team that negotiated it.
“There are improvements that need to be made, but I am not convinced that any of them will change the situation dramatically. . . . Unless and until there is a solution to the protocol problem, there will be no decentralized institutions left,” he added.
For Alan Whysall, a former senior civil servant in Northern Ireland who worked on the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement “is lagging” and “must undergo a comprehensive renewal process”.
Among areas where “new life” could be injected into the deal, he sees policing, dealing with long-standing threats from paramilitary groups, low levels of integrated education and overcoming divisions over how to deal with the past. Britain is pushing for controversial amnesty-style measures.
“The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the only basis for politics. There is no plausible alternative framework that can garner broad support, Whysall said in a recent report for University College London’s Constitution Unit. “But the basis of the agreement is now unstable.”
He said the anniversary of the deal was the obvious opportunity for a reset. A poll by Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies last month found that more than 81 per cent of people in the region believed there should be “an independent review of the assembly and leadership to explore how they could work better”.
This was supported by 74.4 per cent of the trade unions, 87.2 per cent of the nationalists and 85.5 per cent of people who did not identify with any of the local communities.
However, neither Truss nor Sunak has indicated that any review of the Good Friday agreement is on the cards. Lord David Frost, former Brexit minister, has called in new essay for the protocol dispute to be resolved “to place Northern Ireland firmly, permanently and completely within the UK”.
But Brendan O’Leary, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the British government needed to argue that the Good Friday Agreement was at risk to argue that its intentions to breach the protocol are necessary.
“All the current difficulties come from the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the subsequent decision to leave the customs union and the single market,” he said. “So British policy needs to be overhauled, not the Good Friday Agreement.”