Northern Ireland in its centenary year: reviving the promise of the Good Friday Agreement

Yesterday’s blogpost suggested that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement settlement might be facing its greatest threat ever. Some now see a border poll, and early Irish unity as the answer. Here, Alan Whysall, a member of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland, gives a personal perspective. He argues that a majority for unity is probably not imminent; a fixation on the ‘union versus unity’ debate may be profoundly damaging; and that whatever the preferred constitutional outcome, the key requirement now is to revive the Agreement, and people in Northern Ireland need to take the lead on that.

The Constitution Unit has published, for consultation, the interim report of its working group on the possibility of a border poll and processes around it. We take no view on whether there should be a poll, or Irish unity.

This work is necessary given the absence of explicit provision in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement about the shape of a united Ireland or the route to it. The debate on unity is already happening: it needs to be well informed and to address all the key issues involved in unification. It has so far barely engaged with them.

There is now a strong campaign in favour of an early border poll. Sinn Féin seeks early government preparations, though the SDLP (which is setting up a Commission on the issues), and the parties in the Irish coalition government (which is leading with its Shared Ireland initiative), believe the time is not yet right for a poll. 

But in Northern Ireland, those advocating unity are to all appearances the only people with a plan – even to audiences who might think it flawed.

Unionism appears divided and bewildered. Unionist commentators, starting in 2018 with the former DUP leader Peter Robinson, have occasionally suggested preparation for a border poll. But unionism is not yet rising to the challenges of a poll. At present in Northern Ireland most parties seek to appeal to their own side of the community. In the unity debate, each side needs arguments, and the people to make them, who can reach into the centre ground and the other camp. 

A few in unionism now recognise this, but with little acknowledgement from party leaderships. They may fear giving legs to the unity debate. But if they do not ensure in some way that their case is made beyond their own community they may find centrist and soft nationalist opinion has moved on irretrievably.

A majority for unity may be a long way off

But the Unit’s report does not conclude that a poll, and unity, are in any way imminent. Some online polls suggest a majority is not far away: a January Sunday Times poll suggested 42% of people intending to vote in Northern Ireland favoured unity, against 47% preferring to remain in the UK, with 11% undecided. This is three percentage points less support for unity than in a similar poll last year. And face-to-face surveys, considered in principle to be more reliable, show significantly less backing for unity.

Party support does not suggest an immediate majority for unity: Sinn Féin would have 24% of the total Assembly vote according to recent polling; the total for all main nationalist parties is 37%.

Whether a majority for unity will ever arise is likely to be decided in the newly enlarged middle ground. Parties there do not by nature favour constitutional big bangs. The January poll offers some insight: among centre-ground voters, it found 26% favouring remaining in the Union, 38% preferring a united Ireland and 36% undecided. The ‘don’t know’ component is strikingly large, suggesting these are key swing voters (the poll also suggested only 75% of SDLP voters would vote for unity). 

So far as views are based on pragmatic judgements rather than ideological conviction, further changes in circumstances, or perceptions of ill faith or hostility to Northern Ireland, either in London or Dublin, might change the balance.

The South must also, under the Agreement, vote in favour of unity if it is to come about. A poll early last year suggested 57% support.

The impact of debate and analysis

Opinion in both parts of the island may shift significantly, however, once there is serious debate and analysis, in North and South, of all the issues that would have to be decided. This would include concrete plans for what a united Ireland would look like. In Chapter 7 of our report, the Working Group set out the main issues needing to be addressed. 

Any plan for unity is likely to bring disruptive change, with potential consequences for many in both the North and the South, and losers as well as winners. Unity is not a universal solvent for Northern Ireland’s woes. It may leave in place, if not exacerbate, many of its current problems. Signs of welcome from the South may swing opinion among people in the North who have lost all faith in London. But there will be many hesitations.

An eternity of Groundhog Days

So we may face prolonged stasis, while the economic and social fabric decays. If majority support for unity does not clearly emerge, but nor is it shown to be far away, there is a risk that the largest parties take up the traditional battle lines of union versus unity – with the same lack of attention to ordinary issues of government as we see at present (see part one of this post). And in that scenario come risks of polarisation deepening in the community, talented young people deserting and international goodwill ebbing away.

Devolution may then become increasingly hard to sustain. If it collapsed, the traditional resort would have been direct rule from Westminster, but it would now seriously lack legitimacy, given the fact that London is less trusted than it was. That is why, after the 2017 collapse of the power-sharing arrangements, government was, extraordinarily, conducted by the civil service without ministerial oversight. But current policy challenges mean it would be hard to avoid significant London involvement this time.

The lost promise of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

Implementing the Agreement once offered Northern Ireland a shared project, transcending the binary – with strong public support that appears to continue.

But the main immediate institutional commitments of the Agreement have now been fulfilled, and in execution they appear tarnished. Northern Ireland politics offers no compelling vision for the future. For most parties, long-term objectives do not seem to go far beyond remaining in the union, or unity. The Executive’s plans – set out in Programmes for Government – are laboriously worked on but have rarely had any political or public traction. 

Beyond the structures, the Agreement had broader aims of fostering reconciliation, recognising different identities, resolving legacy issues, strengthening the economy and building relations north-south and east-west. 

These aims now largely languish. Legacy issues, as often when politics is depressed, become more contentious

Deals brokered over the years by governments to keep the institutions functioning have, perhaps understandably, focused on the short-term, not the broader underpinnings.

The energy and idealism the Agreement generated have dissipated, and the public desire for making it work is unengaged. There is no vision to inspire anyone outside the ‘union versus unity’ divide about what can be achieved. There are few symbols of shared identity and shared endeavour.

Reviving the promise: the challenge to civic society

But a great deal more could be done to fulfil the broader Agreement objectives. Work has been done inside and outside government on aspects of them. It has not been brought together, however, and hence has made little impact on the political and media discourse, or public consciousness.

A programme for a revived Agreement would need to focus on all the broader themes mentioned above, including improving the operation of government, projecting a vision for the future of Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland, and relations with the other jurisdictions of the UK, without prejudice to ultimate constitutional forms.

This may include institutional change. Bearing in mind, though, that such debates have often been a distraction, those issues might be for a second stage. This is not to propose a catalogue of woolly aspirations: many of the questions will be difficult ones that the political system has shunned. 

Traditionally reboots have come out of political crises, orchestrated by the governments, restoring institutions to stability and beyond that hoping for the best.

It is important that work starts to map out what a revived Agreement might look like, and provide an agenda for coherent public debate. And to raise aspirations: poverty of ambition and a fatalism that says nothing can be achieved too often inhibit progress. The governments ought to be looking at this, but may be unlikely to do so of their own accord.

Can a start be made outside the political machinery? This is a challenge to civic society: including academia, the third sector, business unions and think tanks. 

There is at present no broadly-based framework for coordinating such work. There are groups with aspirations to make things work better. There are also academics working in the field. They now include the ARINS project. This is a welcome initiative, but Dublin-based. Planning for reinvigorating the Agreement needs to bring in practical expertise, and for reasons of political acceptability and nothing else, to be northern-based.

A programme drawn up by outsiders will not be accepted wholesale: the political questions would need to be addressed by the political machine. It may be unrealistic to hope a single draft of a revived Agreement can be developed, given the controversies. But reasoned options for such a programme, to be drawn on as political conditions permit, would have great value.

Reviving the Agreement is necessary from any point of view

Is this a plan to thwart unity? By no means. As was suggested earlier, unionists in an era when border polls loom larger might logically be interested in ways in which the Agreement could be made to function better.

But so might proponents of unity. An unstable Northern Ireland with many hostile unionists may not seem to voters in the South an attractive immediate extension to their state. Even voters there convinced of the need for unity may prefer a model where Northern Ireland is insulated by separate institutions: but that requires those institutions to be stable.

There is a vision of Northern Ireland 20 years hence that has regained and built on the reputation it enjoyed after the Agreement as a poster child for reconciliation; that accommodates and gets the best from all identities; that works closely with London and Dublin, but has its own sense of where it should be going; that has prospered through economic change, making the most of its place in both the EU and UK economies; that has well-performing government and public services.

Such a better future will not come about simply by changing constitutional status, nor by insisting on the status quo. In any constitutional framework it has to be worked for; and if it is not, things will get worse.

A forthcoming discussion paper from the Unit will offer further thoughts on Northern Ireland’s political future, focusing in particular on ways in which the Agreement might be revived and developed.

The views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group of Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland as a whole.

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is the founder and a Trustee of Pivotal, a new public policy think tank for Northern Ireland, and a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. The views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group of Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland as a whole.

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