If there’s one thing all communities in Northern Ireland can agree on, it’s that their political institutions – created as part of a historic peace deal in 1998 – should work better.
The region has been without a government for about 40% of the quarter century since David Trimble, who died last month, successfully pressured the then Unionist majority to accept power-sharing in the Good Friday Agreement when he was chief of Ulster. Unionist Party.
With local politics once again on the rocks – Northern Ireland has not had a fully functioning devolved executive for six months due to a row over the implementation of Brexit trade deals – the calls to an overhaul of the historic agreement are multiplying as we approach the 25th anniversary of its signing.
“Some of the mechanics of the Good Friday deal are as destructive to Northern Ireland’s success as they are helpful, as one party can bring down the house of cards,” said Niamh Gallagher, senior lecturer in British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge. “This must absolutely be abolished.”
The Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles, and established a framework for the region’s institutions, as well as for North-South Irish and Anglo-Irish cooperation. Irish. All three are currently live.
The agreement has been updated since 1998, but the principle that the Unionist and Nationalist communities must share power in the executive government – and that if one side does not agree, the other cannot go it alone alone – remains sacrosanct.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which champions Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and was the region’s biggest political force until it was ousted by nationalist Sinn Féin in the May election, has paralyzed the executive since February. He is seeking to force the end of Brexit controls on goods entering from Britain.
Since May, the DUP has gone further, even refusing to allow the region’s assembly to operate, a stalemate that could lead to new elections within months.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, key decisions made by the power-sharing executive require cross-community support. The agreement also ensures that there can be no change in Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of the region’s inhabitants.
The DUP has argued that its opposition to the post-Brexit trade deal can therefore not be ignored.
The British government agrees, saying Northern Ireland’s delicate inter-communal balance has been disrupted and the Good Friday Agreement has been so undermined that trade deals for the region agreed with Brussels, dubbed the Protocol of ireland, must be torn apart.
It was the basis of a bill introduced in Westminster in June by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and backed by his Tory leadership rival Rishi Sunak.
But some Northern Ireland experts said London was twisting the truth.
“The UK government has adopted a one-sided analysis of the Belfast/Good Friday deal,” wrote Andrew McCormick, a former senior Northern Ireland Brexit official, in a new paper for Irish think tank Institute of International and European. Affairs.
He said the government would set a “dangerous precedent for responding to a party’s refusal to participate in the institutions by making a concession in its favor”.
No unionist politician backs the protocol, saying the arrangement, which left Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and imposed checks on them entering the region, undermines its place in the UK .
However, the UK’s solution – tearing up parts of the protocol – is at odds with the views of the majority of lawmakers elected to the Stormont assembly who see it as workable, albeit with some adjustments.
A quarter of a century after the apprehension and hope represented by the Good Friday Agreement, the agreement remains the only viable solution when it comes to safeguarding the concerns of both communities.
But politicians, former civil servants and academics say it could be updated, not least to recognize that Northern Ireland’s old binary political preferences are changing.
The Alliance party, which does not align itself with either community and more than doubled its seats in May to become the third political force, wants reforms to end “ransom politics”. Sinn Féin collapsed the 2017 executive 22 in a row because of a botched energy programme.
“The logic of the Good Friday deal is still compelling,” said Rory Montgomery, a former senior Irish diplomat and member of the team that brokered it.
“There are improvements to be made, but I’m not convinced that any of them would radically change the situation. . . Unless and until there is a resolution to the protocol problem, there will be no more decentralized institutions,” he added.
For Alan Whysall, a former senior civil servant in Northern Ireland who worked on the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement “limps” and “must undergo a full renewal process”.
Among the areas where ‘new life’ could be injected into the deal, he sees policing, dealing with continued threats from paramilitary groups, low levels of mainstream education and overcoming divisions over how to deal with the past. . The UK is proposing controversial amnesty-type measures.
“The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the sole basis of the policy. There is no plausible alternative framework capable of broad support,” Whysall said in a recent report for the University College London constitution unit. “But the foundations of the deal are now shaky.”
He said the anniversary of the deal was an obvious opportunity for a reset. A poll last month by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool found that more than 81 per cent of people in the area thought there should be “an independent review of the assembly and the executive to explore how they might work better”.
This view was supported by 74.4% of trade unionists, 87.2% of nationalists and 85.5% of people who did not identify with either community.
Neither Truss nor Sunak, however, suggested that a revision of the Good Friday Agreement be considered. Lord David Frost, former Brexit minister, has called in a new essay to resolve the protocol dispute “to place Northern Ireland firmly, permanently and fully within the United Kingdom”.
But Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the UK government had to argue that the Good Friday Agreement was in jeopardy in order to claim its intentions to breach protocol were necessary.
“All the current difficulties stem from the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the subsequent decision to leave the customs union and the single market,” he said. “So UK policy needs to be overhauled, not the Good Friday Agreement.”