The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement at 25: what does the future hold for the Agreement?

As the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement reaches its 25th anniversary, a new report for the Unit by Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate, asks whether this is a time for constitutional change, and assesses its future.

The Agreement at 25 builds on two earlier Constitution Unit texts: the Report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland of May 2021, and a Unit discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, of May 2022.

At the Agreement’s quarter-centenary, its principal political institutions have been in suspension for a year, leaving Northern Ireland effectively without government. Political discourse has polarised, notably over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol. And the debate on constitutional issues, whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK or joins a united Ireland, has sharply intensified.

The report focuses first on the debate on the Union versus Irish unity; but concludes that early constitutional change is unlikely, and in any event not calculated to resolve Northern Ireland’s key current problems. The report urges that serious and committed efforts are necessary, not least from London, to revive the Agreement and the promise it once offered. Otherwise much of the progress we have seen under the Agreement may be in danger.

Union or unity?

The Agreement is clear: whether Northern Ireland remains in the United Kingdom, or joins a united Irish state, is a matter for consent (by simple majorities) in each part of the island, and no one else.

Polling and election results suggest that support for Irish unity has increased in Northern Ireland, with some signs that young people increasingly favour it. On the basis of either sort of evidence, though, an early majority for unity seems unlikely. In the South, polling returns substantial majorities for unity, though it also suggests that attitudes could change significantly as the consequences of unification become clearer.

What are the prospects for the Union?

Support for unionist political parties has been shrinking, and the pro-Union cause can no longer rely on a natural majority of unionists by conviction. The swing constituency in a vote on unity now appears to be supporters of the Alliance Party, and ‘soft’ nationalists.

But little that is heard from political unionism at present addresses these voters or seeks to broaden support for the Union. It has been conducting a largely inward-looking dialogue, and the proposals for change chiefly heard from unionists involve ‘strengthening’ the Union. And unionism commands little understanding or support in Great Britain or further afield.

It would be possible for unionists to propose change that, while not imperilling the Union, might lead people who were potential voters for unity to reconsider. The report considers the areas on which they might focus – though this would be a substantial shift in behaviour among political unionists. Failing such a shift, though, support for the Union may continue to shrink over time.

Increasing numbers of people on the other side of the argument now appear to believe that unity is an early prospect

There has been a great upsurge in activity around unity – research, books, well-attended events – focused on an early referendum in Northern Ireland and the South. And there have been some attempts to bring unionists in, though most of them, as is understandable, are not inclined to join in planning for a united Ireland.

But the debate on unity remains at a high level of generality. Many of the practical implications – difficult questions both as to the route to unity, and on what a united Irish state would look like – are not being addressed. The Agreement provides very little guidance.

When those issues come into clearer focus, there might be much reappraisal of enthusiasm for unity, not least in the South. The viability of a united Ireland achieved on the basis of a bare majority, with a large number of recalcitrant citizens entering the state, and with a potentially significant financial liability, may provoke doubt in both parts of the island. There is no prospect of changing the Agreement rule about constitutional destiny depending on simple majorities; but the wisdom and the practicality of seeking change on that basis is extremely doubtful.

We have seen so far less discussion of gradualist approaches that would put early priority on promoting reconciliation and closer relations within the island, before seeking constitutional change. Here, too, there are possibilities for a different but perhaps more sustainable approach.

On both sides, we have at present a debate that focuses on constitutional forms and tends to neglect practical realities – the reverse of the emphasis of the Agreement itself, which effectively set the constitutional question on one side and focused on dealing with the transition from conflict in Northern Ireland.

The debate is legitimate, and in any event will continue; but it would be much healthier if the dialogue addressed all the key practical questions; and, even more fundamentally, started to seek something nearer to consensus, which is after all the focus of the Agreement.

Reviving the Agreement is the only realistic hope

At all events, it is hard to conclude from the evidence that early constitutional change is likely – or that it would go far to resolve Northern Ireland’s severe social or economic problems if it did take place.

But the Agreement – the only plausible framework for stable government in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future – is at present in danger of withering away. Unless it does start to function again, it risks losing credibility.

And functioning means more than simply restoring the institutions. That is a necessary, not a sufficient condition of success. The institutions must deliver effective government, and the work of reconciliation that underpins the Agreement needs to be revived.

If new life is not given to the Agreement, Northern Ireland may find itself on a road to nowhere: with increasing political, social and economic dysfunction, it risks being unwanted either in the South or in Great Britain; the many gains the Agreement has brought will be in peril; young people will increasingly leave.

It does not have to be this way: revived institutions that start to deal effectively with issues of most concern to voters in Northern Ireland, like the state of the health service, might gain renewed respect. There is great international goodwill for Northern Ireland, and renewed progress towards reconciliation could enhance it; Executive ministers, if united, could gain real advantage from it – not least in exploiting Northern Ireland’s unique position of free access to the internal markets of both the UK and the EU. In such an atmosphere, there might be better prospects of enhancing relations within and beyond the island on something nearer a consensus basis.

What should London do?

To sustain the Agreement, early action is needed: and London, in close partnership with Dublin, has a central role to play in reviving the Agreement, and the hope and momentum that it generated.

What, concretely, should London do? Reviving the institutions is a first, though certainly not the only, step. The report raises some possibilities, including to overcome political vetoes. But the situation is moving fast, and a later blogpost will consider the short-term political possibilities further.

For more detailed argument and analysis of these issues, readers are advised to access the full report, The Agreement at 25, via the Unit’s website.  

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office who advised British ministers throughout the negotiations that led to the 1998 Agreement. He is now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is the author of The Agreement at 25.

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