Marking 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, political commentators Chris Donnelly and Alex Kane reflect on its impact and discuss its relevance in the current political context.
It tends to be forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement, while endorsed by 72 per cent of those who voted in the referendum in May 1998, just about scraped a majority from the pro-Union side. And just a few weeks afterwards, in the election to the first Assembly, the UUP didn’t even win an overall majority of unionist-designating MLAs.
Even among the 28 UUP MLAs there were up to six who were, at best, lukewarm about the agreement. All of which made life enormously difficult for David Trimble (strung along by Sinn Féin, under constant pressure from his own grassroots and finally shafted by Tony Blair); and explains why the DUP eclipsed the UUP with relative ease to cut their own deal with Martin McGuinness.
Twenty years on and my reckoning would be that around two-thirds (although that may be a conservative estimate) of the pro-Union community has no particular interest in any deal involving Sinn Féin. I’m also pretty sure that similar numbers on the nationalist side have no interest in a stable, internal, long-term deal with the DUP. There is no serious evidence of a public demand for the Assembly to be restored; no sign of any new political voices or vehicles; no opinion poll statistics to suggest a shift away from the ongoing electoral polarisation; and barely a whiff of hope from the key players that the present mess can be sorted.
But the mess has to be sorted. Decisions need to be taken – based on coherent debate and scrutiny – and the decision-makers have to be held to account. At the moment we have neither devolution nor direct rule; instead, it’s a twilight-zone netherworld best described as ‘limbocracy’, in which civil servants and some Northern Ireland Office folk make the call and then keep their heads down. Let’s hope they are, at least, keeping and filing the necessary paper trail.
The GFA is still regarded by the British/Irish governments as ‘too big to fail’, particularly against the uncertainty of the Brexit deal; yet keeping it on life support strikes me as thoroughly stupid. Pampering and paying (even reduced salaries) MLAs just to give the illusion of normality is grossly offensive. Leaving Northern Ireland in the present hole is an insult to democracy.
From a unionist perspective, functioning local institutions are essential. We are three years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary and it will be much harder to promote the Union if the place remains a mess that seems incapable of governing itself. Instability is very, very bad for unionism. Not being at the heart of a government here is very, very bad for unionism. Put bluntly, a Northern Ireland that continues to look like ‘a place apart’ is a Northern Ireland that doesn’t look like a stable, viable part of the broader United Kingdom.
In the next few months the DUP – and unionism generally – will have to make some really difficult decisions. Primary of those is finding a route back to the Executive. Unionists need to prove that Northern Ireland can stand on its own feet and make its own decisions. Above and beyond all else, unionists need to prove that Northern Ireland works.
The Good Friday Agreement represented the first time since the partition of Ireland that the political leaderships of our two communities were able to reach an accommodation that signalled the realistic possibility of a future without the violence, bitterness and divisions of the past.
Northern nationalists had been the main losers in the partition settlement, and the failure (of both the southern Irish political establishment and northern unionism) to find a place for this community after partition sowed the seeds for the conflict that erupted in 1969. The Agreement is best understood as finally finding a place for northern nationalists in a state and society conceived of and governed in the image of unionism exclusively since partition.
Amidst the backdrop of political deadlock at Stormont, which has led to the collapse of the political institutions, it is easy to be pessimistic and forget how the Agreement fundamentally altered Northern Irish society.
The power-sharing Executive, Assembly and North-South bodies operated unhindered for almost a decade prior to its collapse last year, and there is widespread acceptance that there is no viable alternative to its resumption once our current political difficulties are resolved.
The creation of shared and equal First and deputy First Ministers remains a powerfully visible symbol of the need to treat both traditions as equals in Northern Ireland, regardless of where sovereignty resides, and this has helped to shift attitudes within both communities towards ‘The Other’. The incorporation of the ‘parity of esteem’ phrase within the Agreement to characterise how the two identities and traditions should be treated has framed any discussions about a workable united Ireland model in the future, as well as ensuring that Northern Irish society continues to move towards a place more equally reflective of both traditions.
Firmly enshrining the principle of consent on the matter of sovereignty and clearly outlining the agreed pathway to Irish unity decisively addressed the issue of how constitutional change can be achieved.
The Agreement included many strands related to normalising our society including decommissioning, demilitarisation, prisoner release and, crucially, reform of policing. All of these issues proved deeply contentious and emotive, yet the relatively successful progress made on these matters has had a decisive stabilising impact.
In many ways, the Agreement represented an attempt to cultivate a rights-based society in Northern Ireland, with human rights and equality commissions being established; and a specific reference to the promotion of language rights, though a Bill of Rights remains an outstanding matter.
The Good Friday Agreement provided the template for the resolution of a political and communal conflict that has endured for centuries. The advances achieved over a 20-year period have been significant.
Yet there remain considerable challenges ahead for those seeking to fully normalise a society still fractured as a consequence of our experiences of the past and differing visions of the future. There have been calls to change the manner in which the Assembly operates regarding community designation and the petition of concern mechanism. However, these changes are unlikely to be agreed in the short-term.
The Agreement has acted as a vehicle bringing us to a much better place than we were in 1998, but Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. Whilst a return of devolved government is very likely in the next year or two, a more radical agenda will need to be embraced on a cross-party basis at the various layers of government if we are to move towards a less segregated society over the next two decades.