6 April 2023

After 25 years, the Good Friday Agreement has never looked less secure


On Easter Monday, the Good Friday Agreement, which is credited with bringing peace to Northern Ireland, will be exactly 25 years old. To mark the occasion, Joe Biden is set to visit the province, while Bill Clinton, whose administration was involved in the negotiations, also plans to be in Belfast.

The anniversary will doubtless be viewed as a chance for celebration – not least because of the presence of these famous American guests. But ironically the principles outlined in the Agreement have rarely been shakier. Its legacy looks increasingly uncertain and the future of the devolved institutions it created is in serious doubt.

When the deal was signed on April 10, 1998, it seemed to signal a hopeful, fresh start for Northern Ireland. Its chief architects, Lord Trimble and John Hume, were later awarded a Nobel Prize for their contribution to ending the Troubles.

They endorsed an agreement that offered Irish nationalists official assurances about their identity, a role for Dublin in all-island bodies and a potential democratic route to an all-Ireland republic. To unionists, its key selling points were the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland, east-west institutions spanning the British Isles and, most importantly, the ‘principle of consent’. This vital tenet, which was embedded throughout the document, determined that the province would remain a full part of the United Kingdom until a majority of its voters said otherwise through a referendum.

For many people across both communities, the most important thing about the Agreement was that it recognised violence was not a legitimate way to resolve disputes about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. As a consequence, they expected paramilitary groups to disappear, give up their weapons and show regret for the trauma they had caused over three decades.        

In the intervening 25 years, the province has indeed remained relatively peaceful and stable, if you ignore the activities of ‘dissident’ IRA splinter groups, punishment attacks by both republicans and loyalists and the criminal feuds that Mo Mowlam once dismissed as ‘internal housekeeping’. There is even evidence of increased prosperity, though a group of Ulster’s leading economists this week described the ‘peace dividend’ as ‘relatively small’.

At the same time, it’s not easy to ignore the fact that the devolved Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland are not currently operating, thanks to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Indeed, for much of its history, the province’s power-sharing government has lurched between crises, with frequent spells of inaction and suspension, that have been caused by everything from IRA spy-rings and murders, to a row over a botched renewable heating scheme.  

When it is up and running, Northern Ireland’s executive binds rival parties together in a mandatory coalition and ministers’ seats are allocated using the d’Hondt method. The unionist and nationalist blocs are required to share power, and each is equipped with a veto that means all controversial decisions should, in theory, command cross-community support.

This system of regional government has proved particularly ineffective over the decades at reforming public services and using taxpayers’ money responsibly. Difficult decisions are routinely ignored or delayed, with ministers concentrating instead on populist announcements, like free prescriptions, or the High Street Scheme, which gave every adult a £100 pre-paid card to spend during Covid. 

You could argue that good government was never really the point. At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recently, the historian and former Trimble adviser Lord Bew expressed this view:

‘I’ve never really believed that devolution anywhere was about better governance. There are political, psychological and communal reasons why you have to do it.’

In Northern Ireland, he claimed that the purpose of the devolved institutions was chiefly to provide ‘peace and stability’. They were never expected to reform the health service properly, in other words, or encourage a thriving economy.

It’s a convincing enough analysis and it’s common to hear the idea that while Northern Ireland’s political parties are still divided starkly, many communities have ‘moved on’ and live increasingly harmoniously, thanks to 1998. While that’s not entirely untrue, there is plenty of evidence that attitudes to the past have actually hardened, particularly among young people, many of whom were not born when the Agreement was signed. 

Last year, a poll in the Belfast Telegraph revealed that seven out of ten nationalists now believe that there was ‘no alternative’ to republican violence during the Troubles. Many people in their teens and twenties, right across the island, have embraced old Provo slogans, like ‘ooh ahh, up the ‘Ra’. In contrast, when the IRA’s campaign was ongoing, during the 70s and 80s, it was supported by a minority of nationalists and was anything but fashionable.

It’s not difficult to explain this change.

From the outset, the Belfast Agreement asked unionists to accept morally difficult concessions, like the early release of prisoners, terrorists in government and the disbandment of the RUC (a police force that made huge sacrifices to prevent Northern Ireland slipping into outright civil war). In contrast, the ‘peace process’ never required republicans or loyalist paramilitaries to show remorse for their crimes, or humility to their victims.

As a result, while Sinn Fein urged unionists to ‘move on’ from the past, it continued to celebrate and sanitise the IRA, whose army council is in place to this day. Its terrorist campaign to bomb and shoot Northern Ireland out of existence was depicted by republican politicians as a defensive struggle for equality, while the British security forces, engaged for the most part in saving lives and property, were recast as the main aggressor in ‘the conflict’.

Of course, the Belfast Agreement was always famed for its ‘constructive ambiguity’ and the fact that the two main communities in Northern Ireland could interpret it differently. The political dispute in Ulster was mainly about sovereignty, but the document reframed it as a matter of identity. For that reason, unionists could describe the agreement as a ‘settlement’ to the constitutional dispute, while nationalists portrayed it as a mere staging post to an all-Ireland state.

Many unionists have argued that they were required to make unjustifiable sacrifices by the Belfast Agreement that weren’t reciprocated by their opponents. Now, with the Northern Ireland Protocol and the ineffectual Windsor Framework in place, they allege that the deal’s cross-community veto was temporarily scrapped so that the EU and the British government could impose an Irish Sea border and divide up the UK.

Unionists also claim that the principle of consent which underpinned the Agreement has proved to protect only the symbolism of their place in the Union rather than its substance. The Supreme Court’s judgement on the Protocol confirmed that the consent principle cannot stop them from being edged ever further from the social, economic and political mainstream of British life, so long as Westminster is nominally in charge. 

They feel that they’ve been let down by the Government, which allowed the Agreement to be used repeatedly by Dublin and Brussels to undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and failed to make a counter-argument that its provisions should be interpreted fairly and consistently. 

Unfortunately, these problems are unlikely to be discussed much by Biden, Clinton, Blair and whichever other dignitaries turn up to lecture people in Belfast. They could well, however, prevent a return to power-sharing for the foreseeable future, and cause irreparable damage to the very agreement that the political VIPs are there to celebrate.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.