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

The 2016 Labour leadership election in comparative perspective

Scott Pruysers Bill_Cross2 photo JB-2015-2

The Labour Party’s current leadership crisis is in part a product of its inclusive rules for leadership elections. In this post Scott Pruysers, William Cross and Jean-Benoit Pilet consider these rules in comparative perspective. Drawing on a study of more than 70 parties from 13 countries they show that the Labour Party’s leadership election rules are somewhat unusual in being highly inclusive, whilst also affording parliamentarians a special role as gatekeepers. Some members of Labour’s parliamentary party may regret not taking the gatekeeper function more seriously in 2015.

As a result of a landslide vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn among his parliamentary colleagues (172 to 40), the Labour Party is in the process of selecting a party leader for the second time in two years (a relatively rare occurrence in leadership politics). The results of what can be labelled as a ‘semi-open primary’ between incumbent party leader Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith will be announced on September 24.

The rules for the current leadership election, similar to those used to select Corbyn in 2015, are relatively straightforward. Corbyn, as the sitting party leader, is automatically included as a contestant in the leadership election. Challengers, by contrast, are required to be ‘nominated’ by at least 20 per cent of the parliamentary party/European parliamentary party (i.e., MPs and MEPs). Once nominated, voting is open to dues paying party members, affiliated supporters (members of an affiliated trade union or socialist society), and registered supporters. More than 640,000 party members and supporters are eligible to cast a ballot.

While there are some minor barriers to participation – registered supporters, for example, must pay £25 to be eligible to vote – the entire process is rather inclusive. Interested individuals need only pay their fee and register on time in order to cast their ballot for the Labour leader. How common is the UK Labour leadership selection method, and how open and inclusive is the selection process when we put it in a comparative perspective?

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Is a second referendum on Brexit feasible?

alan_renwick_webLabour leadership candidate Owen Smith yesterday became the highest profile politician to date to endorse a second referendum on Brexit. But how feasible is this? Alan Renwick suggests that a referendum of the type Smith proposes, on whether or not to accept the terms of Brexit agreed with other EU members, is possible. However, much will depend on how public opinion evolves over the coming years. It is far too early to say whether opinion is likely to shift away from Brexit or not.

In launching his bid for the Labour leadership yesterday, Owen Smith said there should be a second referendum on Brexit once the terms of the deal on future relations between the UK and the EU have been negotiated. In doing so, he became the most high-profile politician to endorse a response to last month’s vote that is attractive to many of those who would like us to remain in the EU. But is a second referendum actually feasible?

There is no doubt that it is possible: parliament can legislate for a referendum on any topic any time it wants. But whether such a vote could deliver the outcome that its advocates intend requires careful consideration. Four key questions need to be answered.

What sort of referendum are we talking about?

To begin with, we need to ask what sort of second referendum we have in mind. Three sorts have been suggested in the course of recent discussions of Brexit:

  1. The first is simply a rerun of the referendum that we have already had. Over four million people have signed a petition saying that – because the result of the referendum was tight and, given turnout, only 37 per cent of those eligible to vote backed Brexit – a second vote should be held before confirming the decision. It is clear anecdotally that many of those taking this view are Remain supporters who are angry that Leave won last month on the basis of what they see as a deeply mendacious campaign. They hope that, now the stakes are somewhat clearer, a second vote would yield a different outcome.
  2. The second option is that last month’s result is taken as showing general dissatisfaction with our current EU membership rather than a specific desire to leave the EU altogether. Rather than triggering the withdrawal process, the government could seek a deeper renegotiation of our membership terms, then go to the country arguing for continued EU membership on those revised terms. This approach was apparently advocated by Boris Johnson last year, and he seemed to toy with it again after announcing in February that he would campaign for Leave.
  3. The third option is that we go ahead with triggering Article 50 but hold a second referendum once the negotiations have been completed, on whether to accept the deal that has been struck. This is the sort of referendum that is now advocated by Owen Smith.

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