The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement at 25: the need for coherent engagement in London

Alan Whysall, author of the Constitution Unit’s recent paper on The [Belfast/Good Friday] Agreement at 25, looks at immediate political prospects in Northern Ireland. The next few months may decide whether the Agreement has a future and London, he suggests, must show sustained commitment and leadership. Getting the institutions back is the starting point for reviving the Agreement, but there is much more to do.

For over a year, the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, has prevented the Assembly and Executive from functioning, in its dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework. Hardliners urge it on, though other unionists oppose the veto on government.

The crux of the unionist objections varies within and between parties. Some emphasise the Irish sea border, the inconveniences of which may be significantly alleviated by the Framework. Others focus on constitutional fundamentals, as they see them: the continuing role of EU law and the European Court of Justice (because Northern Ireland remains within the European Single Market for goods) and the alleged impact of the Protocol on its place in the Union. Some speak of Northern Ireland as an EU ‘colony’; some now openly reject the Agreement. They see refusing to enter government as ‘leverage’ with London (implying the slightly odd characterisation of their participation in self-government as a favour to others).

Meanwhile civil servants run the administration, but without legal authority to take new policy initiatives – and doubtful legitimacy for making contentious decisions. That has just come to the fore with a difficult budget, set from London in the absence of an Executive, embodying real term cuts of 6.4%. Civil servants may be expected to decide where the impact should fall, and are objecting publicly.

Where will the negotiation lead?

Political movement is unlikely before the 18 May local government elections. The DUP may want to negotiate on the Windsor Framework; measures safeguarding the Union; and other sweeteners (including, as always, money). But there are serious limits to what is possible. The present government in London is unlikely to reopen the Framework – there may be flexibilities around implementation, but anything more risks reviving conflict with Brussels. The government has promised ‘legal reassurances’ about Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, but how much more it can offer is doubtful (it is already expressly protected: broadening the guarantee to prevent changes unionists object to would be strongly resisted).

While the DUP leadership probably wishes to return to Stormont, meeting expectations of harder line unionists will not be easy. And its decision is the more difficult because the party would for the first time take the deputy First Minister position, with Sinn Féin, now stronger in Assembly seats, in what is notionally the top job (the two posts’ authority is legally joint and equal).

The wisdom of current unionist tactics as a matter of bolstering support in Northern Ireland for the Union in the medium term is extremely doubtful (as discussed in The Agreement at 25, page 17): but moving beyond them may be hard.

There is now talk of institutional reform to break the veto. The Alliance party has been particularly keen (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future,chapter 9) and the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard such proposals in its current inquiry into the effectiveness of Agreement institutions.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin would probably resist, though, since present arrangements give both great influence. And since the Agreement was reached by a large measure of consensus among the parties, and similar support has been sought for subsequent changes (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future, page 66), changing it without their agreement is difficult.

The alternatives to resumed devolution

But all the alternatives to bringing the institutions back are deeply unappealing (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future, chapter 3).

  • Continuing with the present arrangements would mean continued neglect of Northern Ireland’s longer-term needs, and in the short term may become increasingly unworkable amid legal challenges.
  • The classic remedy was direct rule, which operated from 1974-1999 and 2002-2007: Northern Ireland Office ministers ran the administration, so the process of government went on. But the statutory authority for direct rule was removed in 2007, and its revival would be strongly opposed. And the right the Agreement gives to the Irish government of involvement in non-devolved decision-making in Northern Ireland – though it clearly falls short of ‘joint authority’, as some assert – would be contentious; as is implicit in recent remarks of former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

The need to bring the institutions back – as a first step

There is now a real danger of the Agreement withering away, along potentially with many of the benefits that it has brought. The Agreement at 25 outlines a malign scenario (see page 32) in which polarisation increases, reflected in the Union versus unity debate, quite possibly intensified with the arrival of a Sinn Féin-led government in Dublin in a couple of years; while good government, social order and economic prospects gradually disintegrate.

The UK and Irish governments need to take resolute action to avoid this – and it is something that can only be achieved by resumed partnership between London and Dublin.

My proposal – for consideration – in The Agreement at 25 (page 34) was that, while negotiation continued about longer-term resolution of the DUP issues, the rules about the constitution and operation of the institutions might be temporarily changed, so as to overcome the veto.

What would be of doubtful legitimacy as a permanent change is arguably much more justifiable as the least bad interim means of ensuring that government is done and constructive politics practised. It might well have more popular support than direct rule.

Politically, this may be difficult, especially if the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) refused to serve in such an Executive, leaving it without any unionist presence. But the UUP opposed the boycott, so may well participate, though it might find it painful. And such a prospect might help the DUP leadership persuade its supporters of the need to participate at Stormont.

What changes might be involved?

Ensuring the system could be formed and operate over the vetoes allowed by the current rules might require more than trivial modifications. The immediate issue would be about the appointment of first ministers. In the present Assembly, only the DUP is entitled to appoint the deputy First Minister.

Alliance has argued for the right to appoint to pass to the next largest party if the DUP refuse – which as it happens, is currently Alliance. But that would leave the First Minister lineup without the possibility of a unionist presence, reducing its acceptability.

An alternative would be to permit the next largest party of the same designation (nationalist, unionist or other) as the abstaining party to take the seat – so the UUP would take it. But the justice of the UUP filling such a post, while Alliance, a significantly larger party did not, would also be questioned.

Hence the proposal in my evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for three joint first ministers – difficult, but far from absurd: moving beyond one First Minister makes Northern Ireland fairly unique; and such a lineup would better reflect the current pattern of voting.

There would also have to be significant changes to voting in the Assembly and the Executive, possibly towards a weighted majority system, to overcome the risk of DUP vetoes making the system unworkable.

But much more is needed than the return of the institutions.

As argued in The Agreement at 25, much more needs to be done to revive the Agreement – the only plausible basis for stable government in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future.

In the first place, arrangements for bringing back the institutions must ensure that the Executive this time delivers good government – as previous Executives have failed to do (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future, chapter 8).

But, beyond that, reviving the hope and promise of the Agreement in other areas, the promotion of desectarianisation and reconciliation, the elimination of paramilitary influence are also essential (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future,chapter 5).

This is an ambitious project. It would, ideally, have been one for the 25th anniversary (as urged in Northern Ireland’s Political Future a year ago). But in its favour, there is a strong public wish in Northern Ireland that the Agreement and its institutions should function; and there is substantial international goodwill, for example as displayed in the appointment of a US Economic Envoy.

Such an effort would require a strong governmental push – which necessarily means the London and Dublin governments working together. The Agreement itself shows what can be achieved by such leadership.

And there is a need to find ways of engaging civic society in Northern Ireland: it has useful ideas, but often hesitates to put its head above the parapet and offend politicians.

London must assume its responsibilities

A new approach in London is vital (see Northern Ireland’s Political Future, chapter 4). There has always been a limited understanding of Northern Ireland, and wider Irish matters, in political, administrative and media circles in London.

But the peace process years saw governments gradually (re)learn the lessons, and they worked increasingly closely with Dublin to advance the political situation. And generally there was a sensitivity in handling Northern Ireland matters, especially after the Agreement. But in the rough-and-tumble of the Brexit years, where Northern Ireland was a key factor in achieving some Brexit outcomes, much of the sensitivity evaporated.

Recent prime ministers have become involved in Northern Ireland issues in this context. But it has been hard to see much interest from them in any other aspect of Northern Ireland affairs, still less any sign of a strategic approach. Certainly nothing calculated to strengthen support for the Union in the future, despite the government’s ostensible unionist credentials.

The Agreement at 25 argues, therefore, for a more coherent and active approach. Why should London do this? Is it even realistic to ask?

A government concerned with anything beyond the short term would be anxious to avoid matters in Northern Ireland getting worse, as they readily could. There is a clear public interest in now seeking to restore constructive political activity in Belfast. Certainly, a government concerned for its international reputation would wish to be seen bolstering peace: the Agreement was once seen, indeed portrayed by the UK, as a triumph of British statecraft; both the US and EU have made much of their support for political progress in Northern Ireland. And success in Northern Ireland has helped build reputations for statesmanship in the past.

This is not to suggest a time commitment like that, for example, of Tony Blair during the negotiation of the Agreement. But it is to ask for more coherent thinking around the objective of restoring functioning politics and forward momentum of the Agreement; with some degree of priority in government; including at the centre, with involvement by the Prime Minister; perhaps a return to the traditional Westminster bipartisanship.


If the Agreement is to last much beyond 25, London has work to do; no one should assume that the Windsor Framework is more than the start.

This post is the second in a two-part series about the Unit’s latest report, The Agreement at 25. The first post in the series was published on 6 April.

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 and Northern Ireland’s Political Future.