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25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, is it still working?

On Easter Monday, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) turned 25 years old. A set of two deals that together ended most of the stagnation and violence of the Troubles, when it was signed it both fostered hope for a new Northern Ireland and established a framework by which this future could be constructed. At its core, it enshrined a new practice of co-operation. Citizens were entitled to Irish or British nationality or both. Efforts were made to dissolve divisions and merge Catholic and Protestant communities peacefully. A devolved government was established with a cross-community power-sharing clause: the executive would be multi-party, and the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister had to be filled by one nationalist and one unionist. A cause for celebration, which no end of editorials and news broadcasts asserted over the days surrounding the anniversary.

There is bitter irony in the celebrations. Joe Biden visited Belfast a few days after the anniversary, both as a symbol of the global importance of the Northern Irish peace process and in honour of the role the United States played in mediating it. Bill Clinton, the president who oversaw it, will have also visited by the time this goes to print. There was great excitement about Biden’s visit, and when he arrived he praised the ‘tremendous progress’ that had been made. Only there wasn’t much else for him to do, because our devolved government has not been in session since early 2022. Rather than having the opportunity to discuss this ‘tremendous progress’ with politicians, he had brief individual meetings with party leaders, including Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Jeffrey Donaldson. So much for progress and a bright future of co-operation. Biden’s visit lasted just 18 hours, half of which he was in bed for.

This isn’t an exceptional situation. The executive has been suspended for more than a third of the time since the GFA was signed in 1998 – and more than 60% of the past five years. The current boycott was initiated by then-First Minister, the DUP’s Paul Givan, in protest over Boris Johnson’s acceptance, as part of his Brexit deal, of a customs border in the Irish Sea.  It continues with their refusal of Rishi Sunak’s modified Windsor Framework, which maintains the Irish Sea border but requires fewer checks and paperwork at it. The boycott isn’t about trade but ideology. By placing the customs border between Britain and the island of Ireland rather than along the political border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, Westminster demonstrates that it is not as willing to fight for Ulster as Ulster is to fight for it. In the opinion of the DUP, this is unacceptable. Unionism relies on the idea that Northern Ireland is an integral and equal part of the UK, and if the UK doesn’t see them the same way, what are unionists fighting for?

The boycott is not only due to Brexit. No doubt the DUP does feel betrayed, but the Windsor Framework has now been ratified by the UK and the EU, and continuing to abstain from the executive is not going to achieve anything. One reason they refuse to return to government is that, for the first time ever, neither they nor their more moderate brothers the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) will be in charge. When Givan resigned, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, had to lose her position too. In response, Sinn Féin called for an early assembly election and won. The DUP does not want to return to a power-sharing executive in which it is not at the top. They see a government headed by Catholics as a dangerous government infiltrated by the Pope and the IRA, a slippery slope to a United Ireland and the undoing of the identity they have bet everything on. As per the GFA, the reunification of Ireland must be honoured if the majority of people vote in favour of it in a referendum – and a Sinn Féin majority means that they just might.

When Biden visited Belfast, Donaldson criticised his attitude to the Stormont crisis, saying: ‘Like all of us, he wants to see the political institutions up and running again, but we are very clear that can only happen when we have got the solid foundations that we need.’ This is an interesting statement, seeing as it is Donaldson and his party who are keeping the political system at a standstill. The DUP was the only party to vote against the GFA, and Donaldson’s statement here implies that he is still opposed to it: the foundations are not solid enough – they should be torn up and replaced with new, ‘solid’ ones. Far be it from me to ever agree with the DUP, but perhaps he has a point.

The Good Friday Agreement was a wonderful, monumental achievement. It is staggering that it was even possible. Its optimistic clauses of power-sharing and mutual respect have had real material outcomes that are reflected in my own life, as somebody who has an Irish surname and an Irish passport and Irish political inclinations and lives in a bonfires-and-flegs (not a typo) town. Most of my friends in school were from unionist backgrounds because of where I grew up and, yes, some of them said and did awful things, and it was exhausting to be just about the only person in my A-level Irish history class who didn’t think everyone in the textbook was a terrorist, but I’ll take these micro-aggressions over seeing people I know die. My dad grew up just off the Falls Road in the seventies and eighties, spending bomb-scare nights sleeping in bus shelters and living within eyesight of the British army base; I was born under twenty miles away and didn’t even know what a Catholic or Protestant was until I was about twelve. It was the GFA, signed just over five years before I was born, that allowed me to have such a sheltered childhood. 

And yet – we are twenty-five years past it. Northern Ireland has changed since 1998. The now third-largest party, Alliance, professes neither nationalism nor unionism and holds almost 20% of assembly seats – what happens if it becomes second or first? Will its leader still need to share power? With whom? Even within the traditional unionist-nationalist dichotomy that the power-sharing agreement was intended to referee, the ability of the executive to take so many and such long breaks from existence demonstrates that there are structural flaws at its heart. Surely it cannot allow a true sectarian like Donaldson to stop democratic processes because he can’t bear the potential ramifications of a nationalist majority. Democratic standstill in Northern Ireland is not only destructive to public services like the NHS and education – which under devolution are local, not London, responsibilities – but potentially dangerous, with the ever-present possibility that people will grow tired of nothing happening and resort back to violence to make something happen. It has already been seen leading up to and around Easter: loyalists in Ards, republicans in Derry. 

We must be wary of deifying the Good Friday Agreement as has been done, with the best intentions, over this anniversary. The peace it secured is so fragile and necessary – it is good and urgent to examine it and identify its flaws, not to cling to the legislature of 1998 as a sacred text but to update it and ensure it continues to work as circumstances change and we make this ‘tremendous progress’ of nationalists and neutrals gaining voices.

Image Credit: Robert Paul Young/ CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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