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 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading

House of Lords Committees: What needs to change?

25476The House of Lords Liaison Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the functioning of select committees in the House of Lords. With Brexit due to occur in March 2019, it is likely that the scope and role of many committees will change significantly. In this post, Lord McFall of Alcuith, who chairs the Liaison Committee, discusses the inquiry and some of the issues it will need to examine in order to be effective.

When I joined the House of Lords in 2010, following 23 years in the House of Commons (including ten as Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee), I was impressed by the range and extent of committee activity in the second chamber. Having gone on to serve on a number of committees – including the Draft Financial Services Bill Joint Committee, Economic Affairs Committee, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee – I developed a stronger appreciation of the depth, breadth and rigor of their work. Committee activity is a crucial part of the work of the House of Lords, which is well placed to draw on the extensive and wide-ranging expertise of our members and adds significant value to the work of parliament as a whole. I believe that Lords Committees also contribute to society more widely through their influence on government policy and societal change.

Nevertheless, we need to do more to increase awareness of this vital and relevant role. House of Lords committees should be more at the forefront of engaging the public in their work. I want to see that engagement develop into a national conversation about the work of our committees and how and why they are relevant to the public. Committees provide a unique opportunity for people from all walks of society and all parts of the United Kingdom to interact with the House of Lords. Our inquiries should inspire conversation and debate about the important issues they address. And we need to use digital tools, as well as our more traditional meetings and visits, to extend their reach. Continue reading

Devolution, Brexit, and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement for the four countries of the UK

 

bigpic (1)Over the next 12 months the UK’s national and devolved institutions will be taking decisions that will rank amongst the most significant political events in Britain’s post-war history. In an attempt to contribute to the debate on the role of devolved bodies in the Brexit process, the Welsh Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has produced a report on the subject. In this blog its Chair, Mick Antoniw AM, offers his personal view on the government’s current approach to Brexit and calls for a constitutional reordering of the UK once Britain leaves the EU.

Leaving the EU has turned out to be more than a mere decision to leave a Europe-wide economic and social bloc and has brought into sharp focus the future role and status of the UK in the world. What do we represent and how are we perceived? How much influence in world economic and political affairs do we really have? These questions, however, go even deeper in that they also call into question the very purpose, long-term future and stability of the UK as a country. 

For almost 50 years, since the passing of the European Communities Act, the answers to these questions have been masked by our membership of a European project that with economic and technological globalisation has been developing into a political and social union based on its collective economic strength. 

The Social Chapter, the central role of the European Court of Justice, the developing role of the European Investment Bank and the development of the EU as a trading bloc in its own right created a legal as well as an economic framework for an expanding Europe. Within this context the UK’s increasingly dysfunctional and conflicting internal constitutional arrangements have been masked and constrained by the broader EU constitutional framework and jurisdiction. 

Pandora’s Box has now been opened. British nationalism’s nakedness has been revealed and our political and constitutional nudity is now there for all to see, exposed by the absence of any clear post-Brexit plan. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the countdown to leaving the UK has begun and on 29 March 2019 we will be out of the EU, ready or not.  Continue reading

How the UK and devolved governments can agree on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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With the EU Withdrawal Bill now in the House of Lords, Clause 11 of the bill is expected to be a cause of potential trouble for the government. The Scottish and Welsh governments, as well as the Labour Party, are all currently opposed to the clause as currently drafted and it seems unlikely it will survive the Lords in its present form. Akash Paun explains the concerns of Edinburgh and Cardiff in this blog and proposes a number of possible solutions, each of which will require compromise on all sides.

The UK government is locked in dispute with the Scottish and Welsh governments over Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill. This clause prevents the devolved administrations from modifying ‘retained EU law’, the term for all the European legislation the bill will bring into domestic law.

The effect would be that all powers exercised in Brussels return to Westminster, at least initially, giving the UK parliament the ability to create binding legal frameworks in place of EU law. The devolved governments say this is unacceptable, and Edinburgh and Cardiff have refused to grant legislative consent to the bill.

The government accepts that Clause 11 needs to be amended, but it has not brought forth alternative proposals, despite promising to do so before the bill left the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Scottish and Welsh Governments propose that Clause 11 should simply remove the requirement for devolved bodies to act in accordance with EU law. Full control of the 100-plus areas of ‘intersection’ between EU and devolved law would then revert to the devolved level.

In this case, new UK-wide frameworks would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and could not be unilaterally imposed by Westminster. The concern in Whitehall is that this would increase the risks of legal uncertainty and regulatory divergence, and could make it more difficult to implement a new UK-EU economic relationship.

The bill has now entered the House of Lords with the UK and devolved governments still dug into their trenches. Recent reports suggest, however, that a peace deal may be within reach. Continue reading

Parliament and the withdrawal agreement: What does a ‘meaningful vote’ actually mean?

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The government has repeatedly assured MPs that they will get the opportunity to have a meaningful vote on any agreement reached with the EU related to the UK’s withdrawal as part of the Article 50 process. This post by Jack Simson-Caird examines the role of the House of Commons and the House of Lords when it comes to approving and implementing that agreement. 

Since the UK government began negotiations over the withdrawal agreement under Article 50, questions have been raised about how parliament will approve and implement the final agreement.

The government’s stated position has long been that parliament will have the opportunity to approve the final agreement through a motion ‘to be voted on by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded’. On 13 December 2017 David Davis MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, gave details of the procedures for both the approval and implementation of EU Exit Agreements. He explained that the approval process is separate from the process of implementing the agreement through primary and secondary legislation.

Approving the withdrawal agreement

David Davis proposed that the process of approving the withdrawal agreement will take the form of a resolution in both Houses of Parliament. This resolution will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship”. The Supreme Court noted in Miller in January 2017 that such a resolution does not have any legislative effect, but is nevertheless ‘an important political act’. Continue reading