Northern Ireland in its centenary year: reviving the promise of the Good Friday Agreement

Yesterday’s blogpost suggested that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement settlement might be facing its greatest threat ever. Some now see a border poll, and early Irish unity as the answer. Here, Alan Whysall, a member of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland, gives a personal perspective. He argues that a majority for unity is probably not imminent; a fixation on the ‘union versus unity’ debate may be profoundly damaging; and that whatever the preferred constitutional outcome, the key requirement now is to revive the Agreement, and people in Northern Ireland need to take the lead on that.

The Constitution Unit has published, for consultation, the interim report of its working group on the possibility of a border poll and processes around it. We take no view on whether there should be a poll, or Irish unity.

This work is necessary given the absence of explicit provision in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement about the shape of a united Ireland or the route to it. The debate on unity is already happening: it needs to be well informed and to address all the key issues involved in unification. It has so far barely engaged with them.

There is now a strong campaign in favour of an early border poll. Sinn Féin seeks early government preparations, though the SDLP (which is setting up a Commission on the issues), and the parties in the Irish coalition government (which is leading with its Shared Ireland initiative), believe the time is not yet right for a poll. 

But in Northern Ireland, those advocating unity are to all appearances the only people with a plan – even to audiences who might think it flawed.

Unionism appears divided and bewildered. Unionist commentators, starting in 2018 with the former DUP leader Peter Robinson, have occasionally suggested preparation for a border poll. But unionism is not yet rising to the challenges of a poll. At present in Northern Ireland most parties seek to appeal to their own side of the community. In the unity debate, each side needs arguments, and the people to make them, who can reach into the centre ground and the other camp. 

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Northern Ireland in its centenary year: a changing landscape

In Northern Ireland’s centenary year, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement settlement may, suggests Alan Whysall, be under its greatest threat to date, as the Northern Ireland Protocol engages. The government in London is not well placed to cope. A border poll on Irish unity, on which a Unit Working Group has produced an interim report, is now much discussed. This is the first in a two-part series: today Alan examines the changing political landscape of Northern Ireland. In the second post, to be published tomorrow, Alan will consider the possibilities for the future, arguing that giving new life to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is now essential, whatever the final constitutional destiny

Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were rescued from their collapse in 2017 by the New Decade, New Approach deal (NDNA) early last year. But the underlying tensions continue: the two largest parties, DUP and Sinn Féin, often disagree publicly and sometimes appear barely able to work together. 

The Executive at first handled COVID well, but Sinn Féin leaders’ participation in July in a mass funeral parade for a Republican lost the Executive much authority; the influence of DUP hardliners inhibited restrictions being maintained in late 2020, when the situation seriously worsened.

Brexit

Brexit, as it has operated since January under the Northern Ireland Protocol, has raised tensions further (NI remains in the Single Market for goods, with increased checks on goods coming from Great Britain, avoiding a border within the island). Shortages in shops have in reality been limited, but implications for business may be severe, especially as grace periods end. 

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Devolution and the Union: then and now

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the flaws of the UK’s uneven devolution arrangements, and the mixed success of intergovernmental forums. Charlotte Kincaid summarises discussions from a Unit webinar in which four experts from across the UK tracked the country’s bumpy journey of devolution, and where it might go in the future. The webinar was the final instalment of the Unit’s series of celebrations to mark its 25th anniversary.

The details and arrangements of devolution have been played out in the public sphere while the UK has attempted to grapple with a pandemic. The public has seen devolution very much in action, with each part of the UK implementing its own lockdown measures and support packages, demonstrating the autonomy and limitations of devolved governments. With devolution in the forefront of the public mind, it was the opportune moment to discuss the journey so far, and where devolution is headed. The summaries below are presented in the order of the speaker’s contributions.

Scotland

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and former Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, described Scottish devolution as an ambivalent project, and noted that there have always been different understandings of what devolution means. For some, it is a modification of the unitary state of the UK, for others the UK is a union of self-governing nations which come together for common purposes, while another group view it as a project in the direction of federalisation. In recent years these foundational issues have grown in relevance due to a number of constitutional confrontations. 

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Referendums on Irish unification: How would they best be designed and conducted?

The interim report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, published today, concludes that referendums on the question of Irish unification should be called only with a plan for the processes that would follow. In this post, the Chair of the Working Group, Alan Renwick, sets out some of the group’s key provisional findings. The group is seeking feedback on these, in advance of its final report next year.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland was established last year to examine how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland would best be designed and conducted. The group, based at the Constitution Unit, comprises 12 experts from universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States. It has no collective view on whether holding such referendums would be desirable or not, or what the outcome should be if referendums were held. 

The project continues the Unit’s long history of research into referendums, stretching back to the 1996 report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, whose recommendations for new legislation helped pave the way for key reforms in 2000. More recent work includes the 2018 Independent Commission on Referendums and last year’s Doing Democracy Better report. We also have a track record of examining future constitutional possibilities—such as Scottish independence or the creation of an English parliament—without taking a view on their desirability.

Why the Working Group was established

We created the Working Group because referendums on the unification question might happen in the future, and what this would involve needs to be thought through. The Brexit process has shown the dangers that can arise if a referendum is called without proper planning. Repeating that in Northern Ireland’s sensitive context would be highly unwise. Yet no such plan exists. The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement makes some key provisions, as we elaborate below. But it leaves many important points unspecified. We do not believe referendums to be imminent: the evidence is that the majority in Northern Ireland would currently support maintaining the Union. But opinion could evolve in either direction in the future. 

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