Yesterday, in the first of two blogs on the Good Friday Agreement, Alan Whysall discussed where the Agreement had gone wrong and the benefits it has brought Northern Ireland since it was signed in April 1998. In this post, Alan looks at the future of the Agreement, a document he was involved in negotiating and implementing during his time as a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office.
As conflict with the EU mounted over the Northern Ireland issue, some pro-Brexit voices in Great Britain began to argue that the Good Friday Agreement (‘the Agreement’) had ‘run its course’. They proposed no alternatives, however, for a position that broke a 20 year consensus in mainstream British politics.
Few in Northern Ireland, beyond established ultras, have gone so far. But some, predominantly unionists, argue in the short term for direct rule; some for changes to the mechanisms of the Agreement. There is also increasing talk of a border poll opening the way to a united Ireland.
Some see direct rule from Westminster as a good government safety net that Northern Ireland can fall back on, as in the past. From one perspective, it is remarkable that has not happened. Extraordinarily, no one has been in charge of government for over a year, as though having government is discretionary. The civil service carries out the administration on the basis of established policy, in a legal quagmire.
Nonetheless the British government has resisted the temptation to reinstate full-blown direct rule. This is understandable, as its own role would be seriously contested, given its dependence on the DUP for a Commons majority; so would the role the Agreement foresees for the Irish government. Most damagingly, it might be seen as the end of efforts to revive the institutions, unleash further negativity and probably drive the best people from politics. Direct rule, once turned on, is hard to turn off.
The present situation cannot endure indefinitely. At some point, much more government will have to be done.
Others argue for significant change in the institutions. Some, for example, would move from the d’Hondt mechanism by which larger parties are entitled to participate in the Executive, towards ‘voluntary coalition’, perhaps backed by a requirement for approval in the Assembly by a threshold guaranteeing some cross-community support.
As to substance, this is unlikely to be effective: Sinn Féin will see it as intended to exclude them. Its legitimacy is doubtful: the Agreement was endorsed by cross-community majorities in the negotiations, by parliament, and by referendum. It is not clear the fundamentals, at least, can be unpicked without similar process.
The Agreement structure is clunky, making good government difficult. But it is designed to accommodate voting patterns in which the great majority still vote along tribal lines. It is hard to see what better mechanisms there may be while that continues, but agreed lower level institutional change may be possible and desirable.
Is Irish unity on the horizon?
A fundamental change in the Northern Ireland political landscape may be happening, shown by recent increases in the nationalist vote, and by its age profile; coupled with anecdotal evidence and opinion polling about moderate unionist reaction to Brexit (in the event of Irish unity, Northern Ireland would immediately rejoin the EU). This starts to suggest that a majority for a united Ireland in a border poll, prescribed in the Agreement, may not be as distant as once appeared.
The Secretary of State may call such a poll at any time, and is obligated to do so if there appears likely to be a majority for a united Ireland (with minimum intervals of seven years). Both governments must give effect to a vote for unity.
This has a frightening aspect. A united Ireland achieved by 50% +1 of the voting population would entail the Irish state receiving not far short of a million unwilling citizens – one in seven – portending obvious threats to civil peace. There are enormous financial obstacles, too. It might still be rejected by the Irish population in a vote, indeed. In that case, or if the poll narrowly returned a ‘no’ vote, reinforcing that something like a majority was dissatisfied with living in Northern Ireland, tensions would also rise.
Before that, if minds become focused on a border poll, there are dangers, but also hope. A danger is that it becomes a complete distraction from resumed power-sharing – and from all the real, neglected problems of government. Another is that those inclined to physical force find renewed energy. The hope is that with a poll in prospect, parties on each side of the community would start to focus on how to win the support of the other, rather than simply play to their own side.
Parts of the nationalist spectrum have started to look at this – establishing the parameters of what John Hume called an ‘agreed Ireland’, showing willingness to move well away from traditional ground. Much about the constitution and wider condition of the Irish state would need serious revision in order to appeal to many current unionists. But debate is under way.
There is not much sign of unionists conducting any such exercise, or preparing opinion for changes that might be necessary to reconcile northern nationalists to remaining in the UK. Were there to be a poll, or even if it started to appear likely, unionism would need to find both arguments and interlocutors with nationalists that it lacks at present.
Unionists may assume, plausibly, that the Secretary of State would not readily use her discretionary authority to call a poll, and that the duty to call one is some way away. But opinion may be on the move, especially if there is no return to power-sharing. In that case, resisting a border poll may become more difficult.
Reviving the Agreement institutions
The chances of returning the focus to resuming devolved institutions would then recede. At some point we completely lose the essentially positive dynamic we have seen over the last three decades, where political parties gain public approval by seeking to work together; in favour of a far riskier one. With that, much progress of recent years may unwind, marking the effective collapse of four decades’ work by successive British governments – among others – to find a modus vivendi in Northern Ireland.
There may not be, therefore, much time to make the institutions work. There is nothing to suggest they cannot of their nature function. They did so for ten years – at times stably, at times less so. Though their record is mixed, when set against what had passed in the hundred years before, it was strongly positive. They had achievements of their own, and their functioning imparted a wider stabilising influence on society and the economy.
There was nothing inevitable in their collapse. It was not planned, but came from a succession of political miscalculations. Different personalities, different tactics, or a different approach in London, might have kept it going.
Getting the institutions back, though, is only stage one of the necessary process. After that, there need to be steps towards inculcating healthier politics that will put them on a sounder footing.
Brexit and devolution
Conditioning all political progress now is Brexit. An approach to Brexit leading to the prospect of a hardened border on the island is likely to make a further deterioration of political conditions inevitable.
If there is something nearer to a consensus outcome on Brexit, that may create a better atmosphere for the institutions to resume. However, the government’s current red lines, if rigidly adhered to, make that very difficult. And the main political parties for the present seem reluctant to engage.
Elements of a way forward
In renewed negotiations, there could be substantial work to do. Setting the institutions on course and overcoming the hostilities of the last year needs another big shift in attitudes in Northern Ireland politics, and to some degree in society. But developments of this magnitude, and greater, have been induced before.
Most obviously the ‘respect’ or ‘commitment’ questions need to be tackled on all sides. That might include unionists endorsing the ‘parity of esteem’ principle in terms; and recognising that in formal contexts the Irish language should be recognised alongside English (perhaps along Scottish lines). On the nationalist side, the obvious gesture is Sinn Féin MPs reversing their century-old doctrine and taking their Westminster seats – which might have intriguing results in present circumstances. Acknowledging the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position gives them stronger standing with unionists in arguing to change it.
On the other immediate issues, there are already steps in hand to tackle the issue of continuing paramilitary activity, and its links with politics; more is needed. Much negotiation has gone on about the past: a plan is largely there, but requires further efforts to conclude.
The participants in a negotiation might find it tempting to leave matters there, resolving the immediate issues and leaving the deeper weaknesses that the operation of power-sharing has exhibited to resolve themselves. This has been the pattern of recent political negotiations, and is a mistake, as the results have made clear. The governments and civil society should be looking further.
So there might be a push for significant institutional change; machinery to address the questions of standards in public life, which could ultimately raise the standing of Northern Irish politics; a renewed effort to tackle sectarianism, and a clear plan for a ‘shared future’. To loosen the grip of the traditional binary identity split, there might be some recognition institutionally that many people feel both British and Irish.
And there might be an attempt to address the neglected issues of good government. A debate that focused on what we should be seeking to achieve in economic and social terms, and the management of public services, could help ground politics, and give purpose and ultimately success to power-sharing government.
But how to bring it all together?
These are all kinds of change that might in the past have come about following an extensive process of negotiation and conditioning of public attitudes; led by the British and Irish governments; perhaps with US involvement; and perhaps third-party brokers; traditionally culminating in a conference at a country house.
The governments working together is crucial as ever to advance. The problem is that as a result of Brexit they are more clearly at odds than at any other time. Yet they will very definitely need each other in the future. The Irish government well understands the importance of the connection: both as regards Northern Ireland, and East-West relations and trade. The British government perhaps needs to be reminded. If the political situation deteriorates in Northern Ireland, it will need the Irish government’s cooperation. And it may shortly want allies in Europe, where Ireland can clearly wield real influence.
The need for new players
But leadership by the governments may still fall well short of what it was and what is needed, given other preoccupations and their reduced influence.
A new negotiation process, though necessarily led by the two governments, would therefore strongly benefit from the involvement of an outside mediator, or more than one. The right figure could, perhaps more effectively than the governments, broker a compromise – as did Senator Mitchell in 1998. But finding people of stature, willingness and acceptability is not easy.
Even more fundamentally, new leadership needs to come from within Northern Ireland – from wider society outside politics. This is not a criticism of politicians, but a reflection of the fact that they work in the political culture they are given, which at present favours division.
If the silent centre exists, it needs now to find ways of making itself known, and organise and work to move the culture on. In the past, there have been private initiatives from civil society, like the Peace People, the Opsahl report of the 1990s, the campaign around the Agreement itself in 1998, the Make It Work initiative a couple of years ago. In particular there is a need to engage young people.
But will it happen? It is hard to be optimistic, given the state of debate in Belfast and London. Brexit at worst may go on delivering bad news for some years. One day the focus may be less on the Agreement’s provisions for power-sharing government, and more on those for Irish unity.
If the UK government wishes to avoid this it must seriously address Northern Ireland’s current problems, and in particular deal with the realities of Brexit. Indeed, all the players might reflect on how they might face up to challenges that a volatile political context might deliver. And civil society must coalesce and provide ideas and leadership beyond the traditional partisan frame of reference.
This is part two of a two-blog series on the Good Friday Agreement. Part one considers how the Agreement has worked in practice and can be read here.
About the author
Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. He was present as a member of the British government team throughout the Good Friday Agreement negotiations before heading the team responsible for putting it into legislation in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit.