It’s time to fix the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement

The treaty is in disrepair – it must change to return devolved government to Northern Ireland and serve the needs of the ‘Agreement generation’, writes Katy Hayward.

The World Today Published 31 March 2023 Updated 22 November 2023 4 minute READ

Katy Hayward

Professor of Political Sociology, Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute, Queen's University Belfast

The Good Friday Agreement concluded between the British and Irish governments and political parties in Belfast on April 10, 1998, is sacred. A quarter of a century on, it is recognized as having had a transformative effect on lives and destinies. Most people in Northern Ireland still consider it to be at the core of day-to-day existence.

It brought an end to three decades of sectarian violence that killed more than 3,700 people and injured more than 47,500. And to underpin democracy in the place of conflict, it established institutions of governance for Northern Ireland: British-Irish, North-South on the island of Ireland, and a devolved Assembly and Executive.

Not a typical treaty

As with other sacred texts, the Agreement contains phrases that are familiar and revered, although their meaning is all-too-rarely realized: ‘exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences’; ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’; ‘reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust’; ‘protection of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights’; ‘parity of esteem’; and ‘rigorous impartiality’. This is no typical treaty.

As such, the commemorations of its 25th anniversary may carry an air of veneration. An eminent list of celebrants will add to the sense of occasion. As well as British and Irish ministers, senior European Union figures and President Joe Biden himself will visit the region to mark the milestone. There is now a sense of proprietorship of the Agreement that extends beyond these islands.

Brexit exposed the Agreement’s roots to pressures that ran counter to the conditions in which it grew

This is because one unintended consequence of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was to internationalize the 1998 Agreement. Brexit exposed its roots to pressures that ran counter to the conditions in which it grew – divergence between states, border controls, unshared sovereignty. The UK and Ireland came to agreement in 1998 as ‘friendly neighbours and partners in the European Union’ but setting the new terms for that relationship after Brexit was beyond the scope of bilateralism.

The pressures on the Agreement were international, and so too was the interest in the outcome. As Ireland handed responsibility to the EU as interlocutor with London over the future of the Irish border, the United States watched closely. The British government’s threat to take unilateral action over the UK-EU Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was viewed with particular concern.

For this reason, the Windsor Framework – agreed between the UK and EU on February 27 to address the difficult trade and political issues raised by Brexit and the Protocol for Northern Ireland – was welcomed by President Biden as ‘an essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress … is preserved’. Indeed, the joint Windsor Political Declaration opens and concludes with the UK and EU’s ‘full commitment’ to ‘protect’ the 1998 Agreement.

There has been no functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland for four of the past six years

But what is being protected here? Although its sacredness may be cherished in terms of what it stands for and what it achieved, few can deny that the Agreement is in a sorry state of disrepair. There has been no functioning Assembly for four of the past six years. ‘Protecting’ the 1998 Agreement requires its co-guarantors to do more than merely prop it up.

The British, Irish, EU and the US are welcome and necessary custodians of the 1998 Agreement. They now have responsibility to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can have active ownership of it.

The 2021/22 Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys (NILT) – the most reliable social attitudes survey in the region – showed that two thirds of respondents consider the 1998 Agreement to be the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, although most of these, 44 per cent of total respondents, think it needs some reform. Only 11 per cent think that the 1998 Agreement should be ‘substantially changed’ and just 5 per cent that it should be removed altogether.

The Agreement generation

Worryingly, the cohort under 25 years  old contained the highest proportion wanting the Agreement substantially changed or removed. Such a lack of confidence and hope in the Agreement among the ‘Agreement Generation’ should be a cause for concern. If younger people in Northern Ireland feel disillusion towards the foundation stone of its peace and democracy, the prospects for building a better-functioning society are all the bleaker.

What needs to change? According to the NILT surveys, a clear majority – six in 10 – want to see a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and a Civic Forum – with representatives of business, trade unions and voluntary sectors – established. Both were provided for in the original Agreement to protect citizens’ rights and enable more inclusive democratic engagement. It is telling that the public is still waiting for them.

For nearly 15 years, the plurality of respondents – about four in 10 – in the NILT surveys have identified not as nationalist or unionist but as neither/other. Such non-binary or hybrid identities are reflected in the latest Northern Ireland census results, which found four in 10 describing their national identities as something other than British-only or Irish-only.

Perhaps this is why the NILT surveys find only a minority in support of the existing mechanisms that give nationalist and unionist Members of the Legislative Assembly more power than those who designate as ‘other’ – currently 18 of the 90 members. Most – 58 per cent – would support replacing cross-community rules on key Assembly votes with weighted majority ones, giving equal weight to ‘other’ as well as nationalist and unionist members’ votes.

Only a minority of Northern Irish support the mechanism that allows either of the largest unionist and nationalist parties to prevent the Executive functioning

Only a minority – 37 per cent – support the mandatory coalition model for the 
Executive, which currently allows either of the largest unionist and nationalist parties to prevent it functioning. And an even smaller minority – 19 per cent – support the ‘Petition of Concern’ mechanism, which can see 30 Assembly members from two or more parties blocking legislation as a means for a unionist or nationalist veto.

Notably, allowing a minority of Assembly members to counter the will of the majority either in the form of ‘cross-community safeguards’ or use of the ‘Stormont Brake’, based on the Petition of Concern threshold, has been key to the UK government’s claim that the Windsor Framework addresses the post-Protocol ‘democratic deficit’ in Northern Ireland.

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There are other, more obvious means to redress the fragile state of democracy in post-Brexit Northern Ireland.

Let us start with those familiar phrases in the Agreement which have been far more circumscribed than originally intended. The principles of ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’ are to be the ‘basis of relationships … between these islands’. The ‘protection of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights’ is to apply across the ‘respective jurisdictions’ of the UK and Ireland. The power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction in Northern Ireland is to be exercised with ‘rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions’.

Evolution not preservation

In sum, the most radical elements of the 1998 Agreement are what it expects of its original co-guarantors. And what does it require for Northern Ireland?

Perhaps, still yet, the bare essentials. That access to ‘exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ should not be conditional on the willingness of both largest parties to permit it. That the politicians they elect will take their seats and make decisions. That elected representatives will neither court nor countenance the language of violence. That those who abuse positions of power will not be guaranteed office regardless. That evidence-based strategies for things that matter – public health, racial equality, environmental protection – will foment change rather than gather dust. And that public institutions will equip society for long-term peace by intentional integration.

Twenty-five years on, protection of the Good Friday Agreement must entail evolution not preservation. A new demos awaits.