Renewing and reviving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement

Alan Whysall, a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, discusses the potential longer term constitutional destinies of Northern Ireland. He also analyses how we can ensure a more satisfactory debate, an ultimately more constructive politics, and the possible renewal of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The first part of this blog, which prefigures a discussion paper from the Constitution Unit, was published earlier today.


Since the Brexit referendum, the debate on the Union versus Irish unity has stepped up.

Some suggest we are at a tipping point, where change might come quickly, because of Brexit, lack of faith in London, fractures in politics, disappointed expectations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – in Irish terms, perhaps, a period like the second decade of the twentieth century.

These developments may well have changed the political climate so far that reverting to the politics of five or 10 years ago is impossible.

But what we are heading towards is unclear. Fatalism would be a particularly misguided approach: there are no predestined outcomes, and certainly no panaceas.

The chances of things going well are much improved by informed debate, and by making every effort to sustain a constructive political process.

Without those conditions, we may well be on the road to nowhere, or a destination increasingly unwanted either in Britain or the South.

Maintaining the Union

Unionism has over recent years lost its traditional overall majorities: in votes, in Assembly seats, in parliamentary seats. In the coming year it may lose the First Minister position, and census results may reveal that for the first time there are more declared Catholics than Protestants in the population.

Unionism therefore can no longer rely on voters’ settled convictions about the need for the Union. It has to persuade, to appeal to people in the centre ground, and perhaps ‘soft’ nationalists who hesitate over the practicalities of early unity, even if attracted in principle.

We are in the world of pre-border-poll politics, where the objective of each camp is to demonstrate that there is, or is not, a likely majority for Irish unity, which would trigger a border poll.

In this context, the arguments and the people that enable them need to appeal across community boundaries.

For most Northern Ireland parties, however, this would be a new sort of politics: in the past they have essentially made their appeal within one section or other of the community.

Unionism, defending the status quo, is logically not under the same obligation as the unity camp to present a new future. But in current circumstances presenting the status quo as the best offer available is hard going.

And those parties are in the difficult position of accusing London of betrayal, while simultaneously suggesting the association with Britain is indispensable.

But unionism is not well placed for calm reflection or courageous new lines of policy. Political unionism is in disarray. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), apparently riding high when it sustained the Conservative government after the 2017 general election, has fallen into acute disarray following the London ‘betrayal’ over the Protocol, ousting two leaders in quick succession. In the latest polling, it shows up as the third-largest party, overtaken by both the traditionally moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the ultra-hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Over the Protocol, unionist parties have been moving away from the compromise zone.

So there has so far been little sign of any plan by way of a unionist counteroffer to proposals for unity – to show how Northern Ireland could better accommodate the changing outlooks of different parts of the community within the United Kingdom, making the Union more comfortable for those who are not unionist, and addressing the perspectives of younger people whose views appear to be notably different from the old guard. There are groups working in the field, but their impact is so far very limited.

If opinion in Northern Ireland does shift further towards unity, unionism is notably ill-prepared.

Unionism should perhaps also have a greater interest in opinion elsewhere, and particularly its relationship with England. Its supposed allies in parliament ultimately proved over Brexit not to rally to it; and polling suggests England feels little affinity to Northern Ireland. The longer-term implications of this require serious reflection


There is an entirely legitimate debate to be had on a route that could lead to Irish unity. The report of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland aimed to inform better the options around constitutional change as envisaged in the 1998 Agreement.

It identified the many difficult choices that would need to be made about both how the unification question would be resolved [Part 2 of the report], and the shape of the unified state [Chapter 7 in particular]. The Agreement gives very little guidance as to either the journey or the destination: beyond the trigger for the process, its provisions are sparse, and these issues were never focused on its negotiation.

The protagonists of unity, in fairness, often declare themselves open to new ideas; and make efforts to hear from other parts of the community.

Nevertheless, the debate about unity is flawed in various ways.

First, it is largely not looking at the hard choices our report outlined. Going into unity without these properly thought through and discussed would be a mistake orders of magnitude worse than the UK’s unpreparedness for Brexit. There needs to be time and space to analyse, to plan, to prepare for new institutions of government and shifts in administrative systems; not to say developing political accommodations.

Failing all this, the chances of maintaining political stability through the transition would be slim, the more so with the British and Irish governments at daggers drawn.

Second, some present constitutional unity as an early option. But no opinion poll suggests there is a majority for unity (though they differ in the degree of support it has); and election results show nothing like a majority. Unless something changes radically, the evidence does not suggest that unity is around the corner.

Political debate cannot rationally proceed on the basis that it is.

Third, we should be clear that unity is not a panacea for all of Northern Ireland’s problems, as is sometimes at least implicitly suggested. Economic underperformance, social division, and perhaps challenged public services will endure unless addressed. Even if unity were imminent, the debate should not displace discussions, indeed hard decisions, on those issues.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no reason that the existence of the Agreement processes should divert attention from other possible approaches to bringing the two parts of the island closer.

The Agreement, while it provided for big bang constitutional change by way of a border poll, in no sense precluded the other approaches.

Large parts of nationalism, such as John Hume, an intellectual father of the Agreement, have spoken of the need for an ‘Agreed Ireland’. But an early simple majority border poll, almost by definition, excludes this possibility.

Many in Northern Ireland, however, might welcome various kinds of rapprochement between the two parts of the island, if they brought benefits and were undertaken without the presumption that constitutional unity was the ultimate outcome. In the context of recent events, and decisions in London, there may be a significant potential constituency for such steps among people of essentially unionist outlook, many of whom appear entirely content to acknowledge a shared British/Irish identity.

The Shared Island initiative of the Irish government aims at this coming together in various ways. But the underlying concept at present is a vague one; its objectives are unclear; conceptually it is less accessible than unity by border poll.

Is there scope for a more developed and accessible proposition about pursuing collective action in the island of Ireland?

Renewal? The need for a revived Agreement

We now stand confronted with a range of questions that are vital to the future, but are not properly debated.

The most difficult and immediate of them pose real challenges to constructive politics.

It is not clear that the political system will be able to do the heavy lifting of getting beyond those obstacles: the constructive voices to be found in all parties find their room to manoeuvre strictly limited by party bases and vested interests.

The British and Irish governments who traditionally undertake that lifting are hampered by their differences and the marked shift in London’s outlook.

Another political crisis where the institutions are threatened with collapse is possible.

Meanwhile, very significant constitutional choices are on the horizon, but they are seriously ill-explored.

Where do we go?

The unwinding of constructive politics has now gone so far that it is hard to see a gradual, incremental route back towards properly functioning institutions – ones that might vigorously drive forward change in line with the original objectives of the Agreement, and with economic, social and public service need.

The Agreement stands in need of a comprehensive reinvigoration: a political restart.

Political crisis has in the past been the means of achieving significant change in outlooks, and new agreements.

But many recent political agreements have simply addressed the surface issues and failed to attend to fundamentals – and perhaps in consequence failed in short order.

The Agreement revived

Can we envisage something more deeply thought through? Is it right, in fact, to think of a revived Good Friday Agreement for its 25th anniversary?

Such an initiative would attempt to set out a vision for Northern Ireland (irrespective of constitutional status), largely in the areas covered by the original Agreement; but it should also lay emphasis on the economic, social public service and governance issues that were not the priority in 1998, but are clearly now in need of greater attention.

There might also need to be institutional adaptations to new circumstances after the next elections. But it is unlikely to be the time for any comprehensive revision of the institutions – which arguably would need, like the Agreement itself, support in referendums in both parts of the island.

The priority would be to sustain and build on what we have gained in Northern Ireland. And as suggested above, work on a revived agreement would not be made irrelevant by a vote for unity: unity is not the answer to all Northern Ireland’s problems, and will certainly not resolve them quickly.

The unity/Union debate will of course go on, it is to be hoped in a more informed way and on the basis of serious analysis of the issues that unity would throw up; other approaches to working together in the island; and ways in which the relationship with the UK might develop.

But getting the short term right would in reality offer a more promising starting point for any constitutional future.

The role of civic society

An essential early question is about who should drive such change.

Typically this is been left to the governments – though building on ideas from others, sometimes in politics, sometimes beyond.

Given recent developments, it is harder now to envisage relying on them. Whether the UK government has the capacity and political commitment is doubtful.

So, if necessary, can people outside politics and government help advance this process of deepening understanding, and suggesting options for political agreement that could carry us forward?

Non-political figures in Northern Ireland have often been chary of putting their heads above the parapet on matters of great political contention. But there have been civil society initiatives in the past that helped move on the political debate, such as the 1993 Opsahl report.

The final word will of course need to rest with the political system and the governments: but it may be the preparation of the ground can only now be done outside politics and government, giving the current limitation of those spheres.

Much work has been done by academics and the third sector in areas covered by the Agreement.

But there is no systemic attention to these issues, and the academic work is often in the nature of analysis, rather than policy prescription.

So a key question the paper will explore is whether there is a role for civic society to draw existing work together, commission new work, potentially involving citizens’ assemblies and other ways to engage popular opinion; develop policy options on the basis of it; and float and foster discussion around possible routes to political progress.

The focus would initially be on the short term issues identified above, without prejudice to ultimate constitutional destinies. But in due course a similar approach might be applied to promoting, in a balanced way, debate on constitutional developments.

This is the second of two blogposts on the issues to be discussed in an upcoming Unit discussion paper on Northern Ireland. The first post in the series can be found on our blog.

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