Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement

by Professor Christopher McCrudden FBA

10 Apr 2018

On 10 April 2018, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement. But is there anything to celebrate? Not if you listen to the graveside orations of those who think it is time to give the Agreement a decent burial.

The peace wall which divides Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The peace wall which divides Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Credit: Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The failure to break the stalemate in negotiations to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland seems to confirm this pessimism. Perhaps we should simply acknowledge failure and move on.

But has it failed, and move on to what, exactly?

Both a peace agreement and blueprint for future political arrangements

The Agreement is both a peace agreement, and a blueprint for a wide range of future political arrangements. It is complex and multi-faceted and, clearly, some parts of the Agreement have worked better than others.

The peace agreement dimension has been a remarkable success. The island of Ireland has just lived through the longest period in its recent history without significant political violence. We should celebrate that fact alone.

Beyond securing peace (an uneasy and fragile peace admittedly, but peace nevertheless), what was the Agreement meant to achieve? The answer is simple and breathtakingly ambitious. It was intended to transform three interlocking sets of relationships: between the island of Ireland and Britain, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and between the communities in Northern Ireland.

The least successful of these transformations concerns political relationships within Northern Ireland.  Does the collapse of the institutions in Northern Ireland, and the current political impasse, mean that we need to move on, and substitute something else?

I think not.

Democracy, consent, equality, and rights

The Agreement has a complex architecture, but the principles that underpin it are clear and simple. That is why there was overwhelming support for the Agreement in referenda north and south of the Irish Border in 1998.

These principles (democracy, consent, equality, and rights) are woven through the Agreement. “Democracy” means several different things, of course. “Democracy” in Northern Ireland is the particular form of democracy instantiated in the Agreement, and that is a power-sharing democracy. This means that both communities have a guaranteed place in government. Both “sides” have a veto. Differing identities and aspirations are recognised and respected; no one wins and no one loses.

Stormont Parliament building in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Credit: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Stormont Parliament building in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Credit: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

No other form of democracy, such as a Westminster-style majoritarian democracy, or a voluntary coalition of the willing, let alone direct rule from a London government dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party, is likely to be either acceptable to both communities or workable in the medium to longer term.

If the Executive is not restored in the form contemplated under the Agreement, together with a working Assembly with the powers set out in the Agreement, no other arrangements will be an adequate substitute. All other arrangements, to the extent that they fail to secure a power-sharing government based on consent, equality and rights, will fall short of the democracy needed in Northern Ireland.

No acceptable alternative

Put bluntly, there is no acceptable alternative to the broad approach adopted in the Good Friday Agreement, as modified by the St Andrew’s Agreement. This is not to say that further changes in the Agreements could not, or should not, be introduced. The Agreement’s review mechanism itself contemplates such changes, but only so long as these changes are agreed by the parties to the Agreement and thereby secure cross-community consent.

Any arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland that are likely to win the consent of both communities in the future are highly unlikely to depart from the principles set out in these Agreements. As a result, the institutional features of any agreed government structure within Northern Ireland would look very similar to those incorporated already in the Agreement.

To think otherwise is to ignore the lessons of history. To the extent that some are seriously considering an alternative to those Agreements, in terms of replacing the existing commitment to power-sharing democracy, or consent, or equality, that is both dangerous and unlikely to succeed. Attention should be focused, instead, on securing a return to the institutions of these Agreements, and their stable operation in the future.

Brexit must not undermine the Agreement

Brexit clearly has not helped in securing that stable future.  Not only does it make it more difficult to secure a stable devolved government in Northern Ireland, it also threatens the north-south, and east-west relationships. Until Brexit, these two sets of relationships had never been better. Competing British and Irish identities and aspirations were set in a wider, cosmopolitan, European context.

With Brexit, suddenly, these competing aspirations and identities have come rushing back into the frame. That is why Brexit is regarded as so toxic in the Irish context. It is also why the EU-27 has shown such solidarity with Ireland in attempting to secure a Brexit that does not undermine the Agreement.

“There is no “Plan B”. Risking its collapse at this time is playing with fire.”

The next few weeks in Brussels will be critical in determining whether that is achievable. If it is not, or at least not without significant shifts away from the British government’s negotiating red lines, then expect further attempts to undermine the importance of the Agreement from fundamentalist Brexiteers. But make no mistake. It will be a lot easier to undermine the Agreement than it will be to put something else in its place, if and when the dust of Brexit ever settles.

The Good Friday Agreement was some thirty years in the making and has provided a workable framework for peace for the twenty years since it was agreed. There is no “Plan B”. Risking its collapse at this time is playing with fire.

Christopher McCrudden is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. He is Professor of Human Rights and Equality Law at Queen’s University Belfast and William W Cook Global Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

Read more by Professor McCrudden in ‘The Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and Rights’ which is part of ‘Brexit Briefings’, the Royal Irish Academy and British Academy’s series of policy discussion papers.


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