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).

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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.

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Northern Ireland: dangers and opportunities for London

Northern Ireland is again governed by civil servants. Alan Whysall argues that London’s self-interest requires it to give Northern Ireland serious attention in coming months. But success may require more effort and time than is currently envisaged, and a return to the approach that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Not making this commitment could have grave consequences for the entire Union, not just Northern Ireland.

This blog draws on the Unit’s report on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, published in May (hereafter referred to as the Report).

No government again

Northern Ireland has had no functioning Executive since the DUP’s withdrawal of its First Minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, in February. The party declined to appoint a deputy First Minister following Assembly elections in May – when, for the first time, Sinn Féin emerged the largest party, entitled to the First Minister post (the DUP deny their refusal to appoint has anything to do with this, but Sinn Féin and others are sceptical). Government was carried on by ministers on a caretaker basis, unable to make controversial or crosscutting decisions, amid social and economic challenges often (as in the NHS) worse than in England. There is no budget and a £660 million overspend (exacerbated by the absence of an Executive). The DUP also blocked meetings of the Assembly.

On 28 October, with no Executive formed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, came under a duty to hold further Assembly elections, before mid-January. By law, the caretaker ministers have now lost office, and civil servants are in charge.

Few wanted the elections, however, and either by his own decision or the Prime Minister’s, the Secretary of State announced emergency legislation on 9 November to put them off for 6, potentially 12 weeks. They could be avoided by the DUP agreeing to appoint an Executive by 8 December (19 January if extended). The legislation would also underpin civil servants’ powers, set a budget and enable the Secretary of State to reduce the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs).

Political prospects

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains intractable. The DUP refuses to return to devolution until it changes fundamentally; it appeared unimpressed by the threat to reduce MLA pay. The EU is willing to discuss implementing the Protocol more flexibly, but not to rewriting it.

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Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics

Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit, looks at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held last week. He suggests that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to weaken, and there is no sign of the government offering any response that might strengthen them; its proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol risk making matters worse. Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, and is summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

The election results, though well forecast by polling, were reported in dramatic terms by media outside Northern Ireland, with coverage focusing on Sinn Féin displacing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party.

They reflect the increasing polarisation of Northern Ireland politics, fuelled by unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So Traditional Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, tripled its vote. The DUP lost approaching a quarter of its vote – but probably, with its line that only it could ensure there was a unionist First Minister, scooped up some support from the Ulster Unionists, who fared poorly. In the event, the DUP won 25 seats, more than many predicted.

But the line about First Ministers was heard even more on the other side, resulting in more nationalist votes going to Sinn Féin. That made it the largest party in the Assembly with 27 seats. The nationalist SDLP lost out grievously; with eight members, it is too small to gain a ministerial position.

The other notable phenomenon in the election, though, was the rise of the centre ground, those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist – which means now, almost exclusively, the Alliance party. Alliance more than doubled its Assembly seats to 17. It is now the third largest party, instead of fifth. The binary assumptions of the Agreement, that politics is essentially about unionist and nationalist blocs, may be increasingly unsustainable.

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