The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what’s next for Northern Ireland?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)Yesterday, in the first of two blogs on the Good Friday Agreement, Alan Whysall discussed where the Agreement had gone wrong and the benefits it has brought Northern Ireland since it was signed in April 1998. In this post, Alan looks at the future of the Agreement, a document he was involved in negotiating and implementing during his time as a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office.

As conflict with the EU mounted over the Northern Ireland issue, some pro-Brexit voices in Great Britain began to argue that the Good Friday Agreement (‘the Agreement’) had ‘run its course’. They proposed no alternatives, however, for a position that broke a 20 year consensus in mainstream British politics.

Few in Northern Ireland, beyond established ultras, have gone so far. But some, predominantly unionists, argue in the short term for direct rule; some for changes to the mechanisms of the Agreement. There is also increasing talk of a border poll opening the way to a united Ireland.

Direct rule

Some see direct rule from Westminster as a good government safety net that Northern Ireland can fall back on, as in the past. From one perspective, it is remarkable that has not happened. Extraordinarily, no one has been in charge of government for over a year, as though having government is discretionary. The civil service carries out the administration on the basis of established policy, in a legal quagmire.

Nonetheless the British government has resisted the temptation to reinstate full-blown direct rule. This is understandable, as its own role would be seriously contested, given its dependence on the DUP for a Commons majority; so would the role the Agreement foresees for the Irish government. Most damagingly, it might be seen as the end of efforts to revive the institutions, unleash further negativity and probably drive the best people from politics. Direct rule, once turned on, is hard to turn off.

The present situation cannot endure indefinitely. At some point, much more government will have to be done.

Institutional change

Others argue for significant change in the institutions. Some, for example, would move from the d’Hondt mechanism by which larger parties are entitled to participate in the Executive, towards ‘voluntary coalition’, perhaps backed by a requirement for approval in the Assembly by a threshold guaranteeing some cross-community support.

As to substance, this is unlikely to be effective: Sinn Féin will see it as intended to exclude them. Its legitimacy is doubtful: the Agreement was endorsed by cross-community majorities in the negotiations, by parliament, and by referendum. It is not clear the fundamentals, at least, can be unpicked without similar process.

The Agreement structure is clunky, making good government difficult. But it is designed to accommodate voting patterns in which the great majority still vote along tribal lines. It is hard to see what better mechanisms there may be while that continues, but agreed lower level institutional change may be possible and desirable.

Is Irish unity on the horizon?

A fundamental change in the Northern Ireland political landscape may be happening, shown by recent increases in the nationalist vote, and by its age profile; coupled with anecdotal evidence and opinion polling about moderate unionist reaction to Brexit (in the event of Irish unity, Northern Ireland would immediately rejoin the EU). This starts to suggest that a majority for a united Ireland in a border poll, prescribed in the Agreement, may not be as distant as once appeared.

The Secretary of State may call such a poll at any time, and is obligated to do so if there appears likely to be a majority for a united Ireland (with minimum intervals of seven years). Both governments must give effect to a vote for unity.

This has a frightening aspect. A united Ireland achieved by 50% +1 of the voting population would entail the Irish state receiving not far short of a million unwilling citizens – one in seven – portending obvious threats to civil peace. There are enormous financial obstacles, too. It might still be rejected by the Irish population in a vote, indeed. In that case, or if the poll narrowly returned a ‘no’ vote, reinforcing that something like a majority was dissatisfied with living in Northern Ireland, tensions would also rise.

Before that, if minds become focused on a border poll, there are dangers, but also hope. A danger is that it becomes a complete distraction from resumed power-sharing – and from all the real, neglected problems of government. Another is that those inclined to physical force find renewed energy. The hope is that with a poll in prospect, parties on each side of the community would start to focus on how to win the support of the other, rather than simply play to their own side.

Parts of the nationalist spectrum have started to look at this – establishing the parameters of what John Hume called an ‘agreed Ireland’, showing willingness to move well away from traditional ground. Much about the constitution and wider condition of the Irish state would need serious revision in order to appeal to many current unionists. But debate is under way.

There is not much sign of unionists conducting any such exercise, or preparing opinion for changes that might be necessary to reconcile northern nationalists to remaining in the UK. Were there to be a poll, or even if it started to appear likely, unionism would need to find both arguments and interlocutors with nationalists that it lacks at present.

Unionists may assume, plausibly, that the Secretary of State would not readily use her discretionary authority to call a poll, and that the duty to call one is some way away. But opinion may be on the move, especially if there is no return to power-sharing. In that case, resisting a border poll may become more difficult.

Reviving the Agreement institutions

The chances of returning the focus to resuming devolved institutions would then recede. At some point we completely lose the essentially positive dynamic we have seen over the last three decades, where political parties gain public approval by seeking to work together; in favour of a far riskier one. With that, much progress of recent years may unwind, marking the effective collapse of four decades’ work by successive British governments – among others – to find a modus vivendi in Northern Ireland.

There may not be, therefore, much time to make the institutions work. There is nothing to suggest they cannot of their nature function. They did so for ten years – at times stably, at times less so. Though their record is mixed, when set against what had passed in the hundred years before, it was strongly positive. They had achievements of their own, and their functioning imparted a wider stabilising influence on society and the economy.

There was nothing inevitable in their collapse. It was not planned, but came from a succession of political miscalculations. Different personalities, different tactics, or a different approach in London, might have kept it going.

Getting the institutions back, though, is only stage one of the necessary process. After that, there need to be steps towards inculcating healthier politics that will put them on a sounder footing.

Brexit and devolution

Conditioning all political progress now is Brexit. An approach to Brexit leading to the prospect of a hardened border on the island is likely to make a further deterioration of political conditions inevitable.

If there is something nearer to a consensus outcome on Brexit, that may create a better atmosphere for the institutions to resume. However, the government’s current red lines, if rigidly adhered to, make that very difficult. And the main political parties for the present seem reluctant to engage.

Elements of a way forward

In renewed negotiations, there could be substantial work to do. Setting the institutions on course and overcoming the hostilities of the last year needs another big shift in attitudes in Northern Ireland politics, and to some degree in society. But developments of this magnitude, and greater, have been induced before.

Most obviously the ‘respect’ or ‘commitment’ questions need to be tackled on all sides. That might include unionists endorsing the ‘parity of esteem’ principle in terms; and recognising that in formal contexts the Irish language should be recognised alongside English (perhaps along Scottish lines). On the nationalist side, the obvious gesture is Sinn Féin MPs reversing their century-old doctrine and taking their Westminster seats – which might have intriguing results in present circumstances. Acknowledging the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position gives them stronger standing with unionists in arguing to change it.

On the other immediate issues, there are already steps in hand to tackle the issue of continuing paramilitary activity, and its links with politics; more is needed. Much negotiation has gone on about the past: a plan is largely there, but requires further efforts to conclude.

The participants in a negotiation might find it tempting to leave matters there, resolving the immediate issues and leaving the deeper weaknesses that the operation of power-sharing has exhibited to resolve themselves. This has been the pattern of recent political negotiations, and is a mistake, as the results have made clear. The governments and civil society should be looking further.

So there might be a push for significant institutional change; machinery to address the questions of standards in public life, which could ultimately raise the standing of Northern Irish politics; a renewed effort to tackle sectarianism, and a clear plan for a ‘shared future’. To loosen the grip of the traditional binary identity split, there might be some recognition institutionally that many people feel both British and Irish.

And there might be an attempt to address the neglected issues of good government. A debate that focused on what we should be seeking to achieve in economic and social terms, and the management of public services, could help ground politics, and give purpose and ultimately success to power-sharing government.

But how to bring it all together?

These are all kinds of change that might in the past have come about following an extensive process of negotiation and conditioning of public attitudes; led by the British and Irish governments; perhaps with US involvement; and perhaps third-party brokers; traditionally culminating in a conference at a country house.

The governments working together is crucial as ever to advance. The problem is that as a result of Brexit they are more clearly at odds than at any other time. Yet they will very definitely need each other in the future. The Irish government well understands the importance of the connection: both as regards Northern Ireland, and East-West relations and trade. The British government perhaps needs to be reminded. If the political situation deteriorates in Northern Ireland, it will need the Irish government’s cooperation. And it may shortly want allies in Europe, where Ireland can clearly wield real influence.

The need for new players

But leadership by the governments may still fall well short of what it was and what is needed, given other preoccupations and their reduced influence.

A new negotiation process, though necessarily led by the two governments, would therefore strongly benefit from the involvement of an outside mediator, or more than one. The right figure could, perhaps more effectively than the governments, broker a compromise – as did Senator Mitchell in 1998. But finding people of stature, willingness and acceptability is not easy.

Even more fundamentally, new leadership needs to come from within Northern Ireland – from wider society outside politics. This is not a criticism of politicians, but a reflection of the fact that they work in the political culture they are given, which at present favours division.

If the silent centre exists, it needs now to find ways of making itself known, and organise and work to move the culture on. In the past, there have been private initiatives from civil society, like the Peace People, the Opsahl report of the 1990s, the campaign around the Agreement itself in 1998, the Make It Work initiative a couple of years ago. In particular there is a need to engage young people.

Conclusion

But will it happen? It is hard to be optimistic, given the state of debate in Belfast and London. Brexit at worst may go on delivering bad news for some years. One day the focus may be less on the Agreement’s provisions for power-sharing government, and more on those for Irish unity.

If the UK government wishes to avoid this it must seriously address Northern Ireland’s current problems, and in particular deal with the realities of Brexit. Indeed, all the players might reflect on how they might face up to challenges that a volatile political context might deliver. And civil society must coalesce and provide ideas and leadership beyond the traditional partisan frame of reference.

This is part two of a two-blog series on the Good Friday Agreement. Part one considers how the Agreement has worked in practice and can be read here. 

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. He was present as a member of the British government team throughout the Good Friday Agreement negotiations before heading the team responsible for putting it into legislation in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit.

 

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is 20 years old today, but recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that power-sharing has proven a difficult exercise. Alan Whysall, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement as well as its implementation, examines what has gone wrong since the Agreement was signed. A second blog, to be published tomorrow, will discuss what can be done to get the Agreement back on track.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, (‘the Agreement’),  but the system of power-sharing government it established in Northern Ireland has not functioned for over a year. It was widely seen in Britain, as elsewhere, as a significant act of statesmanship, supported by both main parties. But it now appears at risk, as the Irish border becomes a critical issue in the Brexit negotiations.

What has gone wrong?

The Agreement was a political construct to underwrite the ending of a conflict and address the divided politics of a divided society. Progress in those three areas – conflict, politics and society – is interlinked. There was a hope that the division would reduce. In society it has, to some degree, though the progress is now in danger; in politics, less so.

The Agreement covered a wide range of matters besides devolved power-sharing government, but the main focus has been on that issue. The institutions were troubled from the start. Power-sharing government was not established until late 1999. Dogged by unionist reluctance to be in government with Sinn Féin while the IRA continued in being, it collapsed in late 2002. Five years’ direct rule followed, during which the IRA declared its war over and decommissioned weapons, and political negotiations culminated in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 (with minor changes to the Agreement institutions). Re-established in 2007, the institutions functioned for 10 years.

Sinn Féin pulled out of the Executive in January 2017 citing lack of ‘respect’ from the DUP, essentially around Irish identity. Its key demand became an Irish Language Act, much debated though little defined by either proposers or opponents. Political negotiations appeared to be leading to agreement in February this year, when the DUP abruptly pulled out, its base apparently unhappy at the prospect of the (rather modest) language legislation proposed in the draft text.

DUP figures now speak of restored devolution being impossible this year; no further negotiations are in prospect. The new Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has brought forward legislation at Westminster on the Northern Ireland budget.

Since last January, opinion in Northern Ireland is much polarised; the rhetoric of the parties, and to some degree the print media, has plunged into a partisan downward spiral. The spirit of partnership that was once to the fore in politics, and at times won votes, is withering, with few vocal proponents in the political realm. Continue reading

Monitor 67: Brexit blues

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen several rounds of Brexit talks, the introduction and second reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the publication of the Burns review on the size of the House of Lords, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

The previous issue of Monitor was published just after the surprise result of the snap general election. The Prime Minister was back at the helm, but with a reduced number of MPs, and dependent on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). We noted that the road ahead looked rocky.

So it has proved to be – though Theresa May remains in post, and the real parliamentary showdowns seem still to come. The Prime Minister has been dealt an exceptionally difficult hand – managing legislation on Brexit of unprecedented constitutional complexity, alongside the fractious negotiations with the EU, while leading a divided party in a House of Commons in which she has no partisan majority. Over the summer, and particularly during the party conference season, her leadership was regularly questioned, but must gain some stability from the fact that few would really want to be in her shoes. Meanwhile, rumours suggest that she has used the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership to coax other EU leaders to the negotiating table.

As discussed on pages 2–3, the official Brexit negotiations have made slow progress. Despite Theresa May’s attempted injection of momentum through her Florence speech in September, EU partners have not yet agreed to move on to ‘Phase II’ (i.e. post-Brexit trade arrangements), and a serious sticking point remains the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Partly as a consequence, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome has increasingly been talked up. This is presented by some in the Conservative Party as a necessary negotiating strategy to get the EU-27 to give the UK what it wants, but others seem to view it with a degree of relish. Meanwhile, business groups appear to be increasingly concerned.

One thing that remains little-known is the state of public opinion, and how that may develop. While the June 2016 referendum came up with a Leave result, today’s question of what Leave should mean is a good deal more complex. As such, it is not readily suited to opinion polling. Here the results of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, run by a team led from the Constitution Unit and funded by the ESRC (see page 15), can shed some useful light. Assembly members, who included more Leave than Remain supporters, expressed a preference for the kind of bespoke trade deal that the government says it is seeking. But members were very clear that if this cannot be achieved, a ‘no deal’ outcome was undesirable. They preferred that the UK remained a member of the Single Market and Customs Union to this. Politicians should reflect on such findings carefully, because boxing themselves in to no deal could prove electorally dangerous.

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Now that Article 50 has been triggered, reality will start to bite

Following the triggering of Article 50, the honeymoon period is over for Theresa May. Oliver Patel outlines the main challenges which the UK faces in the upcoming negotiations. He argues that securing a deal within the two period will be hard enough. Securing a deal which pleases everyone – or anyone at all – will be virtually impossible.

Theresa May has had an easy ride so far. Up until now, she has only had to worry about pleasing her core domestic audiences. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, however, reality will start to bite. The two-year road to Brexit is fraught with uncertainty, obstacles and challenges. Two stand out above all else. First, given the complexity of the task, two years is an extremely short length of time in which to negotiate and finalise the UK’s withdrawal. Second, getting a deal which satisfies everyone – the British public, the EU and its 27 member states – will be virtually impossible. Theresa May needs to negotiate with 27 other countries, each with their own interests and priorities, who arguably have the upper hand in the talks. Her task is an unenviable one.

Is two years enough?

The triggering of Article 50 marks the beginning of a two-year process in which the UK and the EU must negotiate and conclude a withdrawal agreement. From May onwards, after the European Council have agreed upon official negotiating guidelines, the negotiations can begin in earnest. If no deal is reached within two years, the UK leaves without an agreement (unless the EU unanimously decides to extend the negotiations). Two years is a remarkably short length of time in which to complete what is routinely described as the most complex task undertaken by the British government since World War II. EU leaders have made it clear that they want the negotiations to end in October 2018, to allow time for any withdrawal agreement to be reviewed and ratified. This means that the UK could have no more than 18 months to negotiate its exit.

This short timeframe makes the entire process particularly challenging. Sorting out the practical aspects of the divorce will be complex in the extreme. Resolving thorny issues such as the Irish border, the status of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, the future participation of the UK in EU regulatory bodies, and the financial liabilities which the UK owes the EU, will be highly time-consuming, not least due to the complexity and contestability of the issues involved.

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Article 50: What to expect when you’re expecting (…Brexit negotiations)

Shortly before 12.30pm this afternoon Article 50 was triggered and Brexit negotiations formally got under way. In this post Nick Wright looks ahead to what we can expect to happen over the next two years. He suggests that, whatever the technical detail, Brexit will first and foremost be a political process and will require pragmatism and goodwill if it is to be conducted smoothly and with minimum disruption.

And so the ‘phoney war’ of the last nine months is finally over. The now infamous Article 50 has finally been triggered.

Earlier this afternoon Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU, delivered to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, the UK’s formal notification of its intent to leave the European Union. Their brief conversation over (it apparently lasted around a minute), the two-year countdown to Britain’s departure from the EU can officially begin.

However, if you were expecting David Davis and his negotiating team to have their bags packed, ready to jump on the first Eurostar to Brussels to start the difficult (and likely fraught) process of disentangling the UK from the EU, think again.

After many months of waiting, there is still more to come as the Brussels machine cranks into action and the other 27 member states seek to ensure Britain’s departure does not do terminal damage to the European integration project.

So what happens now?

Stage 1: The EU’s Brexit choreography

The EU’s key institutions, including the Council and Commission, have been preparing for the commencement of negotiations since virtually the day after the referendum result.

Donald Tusk has already taken soundings in EU27 capitals, while the member states have held a number of informal ‘Brexit Councils’ without the UK. These meetings will have been designed to agree their broad objectives, and to emphasise that ‘in these negotiations the union will act as one’.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s team, headed by former French foreign minister Michel Barnier and his deputy Sabine Weygand, an experienced Commission trade negotiator from Germany, has been in place for some months now. Indeed, Margaritis Chinas, the Commission spokesperson, declared on 13 March that ‘everything is ready on this side’ and ‘we stand ready to launch negotiations quickly’.

Having received the official notification from the UK, Donald Tusk will circulate the proposed ‘negotiating guidelines’ –the basic political principles for the negotiations – among the EU27. These will then be agreed at a European Council summit of EU27 heads of state and government on 29 April.

Following this, the Commission will bring forward its more detailed ‘negotiating directives’ setting out how the negotiations will take place and including a formal mandate to Barnier to proceed. These will be officially confirmed by the EU27 foreign ministers in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in May.

Whilst somewhat complicated and involved, this process reflects both the complexity of achieving consensus among the EU27 on the line the EU should take in the negotiations, and the determination of those same member states to keep the Commission under close supervision throughout the process.

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An interim EEA-style deal for the UK is the most likely outcome from the Brexit negotiations

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Five months on from the EU referendum it is still unclear what sort of Brexit deal the UK government would like to seek. In this post Jim Gallagher argues that this means that it is hard to see either the UK or the EU being in a position to implement a bespoke Brexit arrangement by the deadline of March 2019. He therefore suggests that an interim EEA-style deal for the UK is the most likely outcome from the Article 50 process.

Fully five months after the vote we still have no idea what the United Kingdom government thinks Brexit means. That very fact tells us what Brexit will probably be like, and how it will be implemented.

Failing to plan

That there never was a plan for Brexit is now a commonplace. David Cameron expected to win the referendum, and planned accordingly. For reasons that are now obvious, the different Leave campaigners weren’t in the planning business either. Over the last five months, this has moved from unsurprising, to deeply alarming. It is now quite likely to determine what happens.

Why do we still have no idea what Brexit means? First the magnitude of the task: Europe and its laws are embedded to a greater or lesser degree in every aspect of our public life. It’s said that there are 500 or more projects ongoing in the civil service to disentangle that spaghetti. In the absence of clear direction as to the end-state, each is bound to have multiple variants. Ministers are unable to give a clear direction in part because they know they must negotiate. But the main reason is that they themselves have no single view on what the UK’s future EU relationship should be. They disagree on how far out we should be. It’s not just a lack of vision but competing visions, reflecting the continuing political divisions at the core of the government. It’s hardly surprising then that the civil service, now smaller than at any point since the Second World War, is having a hard time. Whitehall is crying out for a clear sense of direction and not getting one. As a result, the UK will trigger Article 50 on the basis of an incoherent and undeliverable prospectus.

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What does ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mean (if anything)?

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Theresa May has been clear that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, Brexit could mean a number of different things. In this post Sionaidh Douglas-Scott writes that there are no legal or political reasons why Brexit negotiations must take any particular direction. The electorate voted only to leave the EU, not for any particular exit agreement.

On 28 July in Bratislava, Theresa May told eastern European countries that the British people sent a ‘very clear message’ on the need to reduce migration through their vote to leave the EU, and that the UK’s deal with the EU would have to take into account voters’ views on immigration control. But does this mean that free trade with the EU will have to be sacrificed in order to curb free movement of people? If so, then the possibility of the UK following the ‘Norway option’, by joining the EEA, would seem to be ruled out.

Yet in many ways, the EEA might be the best alternative to EU membership for the UK. It could provide legal security for trade with the EU in most goods and services and could be achieved quite quickly, reducing uncertainty. EEA membership would mean that the UK was free to sign its own trade deals with other countries and also would not bind the UK to some of the EU’s more contentious policies such as fisheries, agriculture or VAT policy. However, it would mean continuing free movement of persons with the EU, which many see as a key reason for the Leave vote. (Yet, notably, unlike EU membership, Chapter 4 of the EEA Agreement provides a safeguard, whereby EEA states can disapply part of the EEA, ‘If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising.’)

But must Brexit mean ‘hard Brexit’? Must resistance to the continued free movement of persons within the EU dictate the terms of any deal the UK negotiates with the EU? I argue not – there are no legal or political reasons why Brexit negotiations must take any particular direction, let alone a hard one.

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