The Belfast/Good Friday agreement’s three strands have not outlived their usefulness

Voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new Assembly. In the weeks which follow, attention is likely to be focused on reviving the Stormont institutions following the recent instability surrounding the Protocol and the resignation of the First Minister. However, the other institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, designed to manage the British–Irish and North–South relationships, are underused and underdeveloped. Conor J Kelly and Etain Tannam argue below for the robust use of these strands of the Agreement to provide more constructive forms of political engagement.

The recent collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and divisions over the Protocol have led to fresh questions about whether the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has outlived its usefulness. This blog does not aim to defend or criticise the Protocol, but instead shows the continued importance of the 1998 Agreement for a divided society in the Brexit context. In particular, we highlight the continued relevance of the Agreement’s ‘three strands’ for democratic governance in light of the Protocol. Amidst deep concerns over whether it will be possible to form a new Executive after the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly taking place this Thursday, the importance of these core features of the Agreement needs renewed emphasis.

Although the 1998 Agreement has been a great achievement in bringing about peace, it has been less successful in bringing about stable government. In addition, it has always faced challenges from some unionist critics and those most opposed to the Protocol are also opposed to the Agreement. The recent stand-off between the UK government and European Union on the Protocol has made those critics all the louder. Yet, many of the faults with politics since 1998 lie not in the Agreement itself, but in the failure to implement it robustly.

Unionist anger over the Protocol has occurred against a backdrop of wider fears stemming from electoral decline, demographic change, and a revived constitutional debate. A majority of people from all backgrounds are happy with the Agreement, although some support its review. Many young people are far less firmly attached to either side of the constitutional debate. For some unionists though, the perceived lack of respect for British identity, for example, the lack of commemoration of Northern Ireland’s centenary last year, highlight an absence of mutual understanding. The Agreement is viewed by some in unionism as a vehicle for the Irish government’s protection of nationalists; some think that unionist interests are largely ignored. Most worryingly, the level of anger among some unionist communities, particularly in deprived areas, with highly charged rhetoric and threats against the Irish government, has led to fears of a return to violence. Some Irish nationalists would counter-claim that unionists cannot cope with equality, most evident through ongoing objections to an Irish Language Act. But clearly, nearly 24 years on, although there is a significant minority who now identify as neither unionist nor nationalist, the Agreement has not achieved one of its key aims: reconciliation.

Under the Agreement, the totality of the relationships across these islands – framed as three ‘strands’ – was central to finding peace and stability. The Agreement went as far as to say that the three strands were ‘so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other’. However, since 1998, most media and political attention has been paid to Strand One, which provides for Northern Ireland’s devolved consociational power-sharing arrangements.

Strand Two of the Agreement provides for North–South cooperation on the island of Ireland through the North–South Ministerial Council (NSMC). The NSMC can only meet when the Assembly and Executive are functioning, so the many collapses of Stormont since 1998 have meant Council meetings ‘collapsed’ too. For former SDLP leader John Hume, Strand Two was meant to help all-island reconciliation and help parties cooperate in Strand One, just as the EU – by developing practical cooperation – helped Franco-German reconciliation in the latter half of the 20th century.

Strand Three provides for British–Irish (East–West) cooperation between the two governments and across both islands. It does not refer to East–West trade cooperation or openness – its core elements are its institutions – the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) and the British Irish Council (BIC). The aim was that formalised cooperation between the two governments would ensure that both would act as custodians of the Agreement and protect each communities’ interests.

The logic of the Agreement is that British–Irish guardianship through the BIIGC, regularised all-island cooperation on the NSMC and substantive use of the East–West BIC would lead to an increased sense of security for both communities and build reconciliation and stability. Therefore, the purpose of Strand Three was and is to ensure that both governments as guardians carve out a neutral approach that is stable, predictable and builds in unionists and nationalists’ interests fairly.

However, many unionists have been suspicious of the BIIGC, viewing it as advancing an Irish influence. In fact, the BIIGC rarely met after 2007, partly because of these unionist criticisms. Any British–Irish cooperation in this period was ad hoc, avoiding the root causes of policy divisions. Similarly, under the Agreement, ‘a formal published review three years after the Agreement’ was supposed to come into effect under the BIIGC’s auspices, but it never occurred. Whether unionist criticisms of Irish influence are merited or not, the BIIGC was not relevant to outcomes.

The recent crises stemming from Brexit have revealed these fundamental weaknesses in the implementation of the Agreement since 1998. The Strand Two and Three institutions have not been embedded as normal features of the political process. In recent months, the DUP has boycotted the Strand Two institutions in protest at the Protocol. British–Irish tensions have not been so high in decades, and Strand Three has clearly not resulted in cooperation to sustain relations through crises. The BIC does meet regularly but is widely seen as a talking shop, without a substantive role in managing relations across these islands.

Yet, apart from building the confidence and trust necessary for stability and peace, both the NSMC and the BIIGC can help overcome the problem of weak systematic consultation with Northern Ireland citizens and parties about Brexit and the Protocol. All communities in Northern Ireland have highlighted the near absence of consultation with them over Brexit. The consent and/or consultation deficit stem from Brexit and the Protocol being international agreements (not devolved areas), ratified by the Westminster Parliament. However, the specialised committee governing the Protocol includes a role for the NSMC. It will ‘examine proposals concerning the implementation and application of this Protocol from the North–South Ministerial Council and North–South Implementation bodies’.

Under Strand Three too, the BIIGC has a potentially significant role in dealing with Brexit and the Protocol. The Agreement states that: ‘Relevant executive members of the Northern Ireland Administration will be involved in meetings of the Conference, and in the reviews…to discuss non-devolved Northern Ireland matters’.Indeed, the Agreement also stipulates that its remit is ‘all-island and cross-border cooperation on non-devolved issues’ and to keep under review international treaties and institutions and machinery established under it. In these ways, politicians in Northern Ireland could have direct access to higher-level meetings discussing EU issues that affect them through both Strand Two and Strand Three.

The collapses of the Assembly over the past 24 years, the intensity of anger and insecurity among a section of unionism, and a more widespread sense that the Agreement has been a disappointment in achieving mutual respect, imply that more robust use of the three strands, as initially intended, is required in the years ahead. However convincing disappointed or disaffected unionists of the Agreement and the NSMC and BIIGC’s use will only succeed if they are perceived by both communities to be balanced and if the UK government provides leadership to unionists to support the institutions.

The original logic of the Agreement’s three strands – to represent all interests fairly – needs to be revived in the new context of no overall unionist majority in the Assembly since 2017, and the possibility of a nationalist First Minister in the Executive after the elections this Thursday. The 2020 Irish Programme for Government commits to using the Agreement’s institutions robustly and perhaps it is no coincidence that the BIIGC has met more often in recent years. However, its robust use will require political will from both governments and a substantive and sustained work programme.

Northern Ireland has seen much improvement since 1998, but it is still a divided society, where satisfying one community’s preferences can easily antagonise the other. That is why the Agreement provided a delicate balance. Regardless of the results of tomorrow’s elections, the developments of the last few years point to the need to recommit to the principles and institutions agreed by both governments and endorsed by the people on the island of Ireland 24 years ago.

This article draws on a forthcoming publication by the same authors in a special edition of the academic journal Political Quarterly.

With the upcoming Assembly election on 5 May and the prospect of difficult negotiations to follow, the Constitution Unit is examining possible paths forward for Northern Ireland. The next output will be a new report and blogpost from our Honorary Research Associate Alan Whysall, to be released on Friday 6 May.

About the authors

Conor J Kelly is a PhD student at Birkbeck College and a Research Assistant at the University College London (UCL) Department of Political Science.

Etain Tannam is Associate Professor of International Peace Studies, School of Religion, Theology and Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin. 

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