What Brexit’s brokers can learn from the Belfast Agreement’s fudges

Janan Ganesh: Good Friday deal blended high ideals with earthly political craft

Peace process: President Bill Clinton in Belfast in 1998, flanked by First Minister David Trimble, of the UUP, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, of the SDLP. Photograph: Doug Mills/AP

Among its other provisions, the Belfast Agreement, which was signed 20 years ago this week, allows the people of Northern Ireland to identify "as Irish or British, or both". What a lot of political progress to cram into a two-word subclause. That "or both" treats human affiliations as plural and textured, not just for Davos regulars but for normal people in a troubled part of Europe.

Looking back, the fin de millénaire West was testing old rigidities of nationhood all the time. By bidding to join the European Union even countries with recent experience of foreign interference showed they did not prize the sovereign state above all. By intervening in Kosovo Nato asserted that moral emergencies could override the sanctity of national borders. And still the Good Friday agreement stands out from that era in its blend of high ideals and earthly political craft.

The craft, not the ideals, is the document’s lesson for politicians today, especially those negotiating a new relationship between Britain and the EU. Although the deal had to reckon with different stakes – those of life and death – it shows how political entities can arrive at a modus vivendi, so long as they leave their need for absolutes at the door to the negotiating chamber.

The agreement is evasive where clarity seems essential. It makes moral compromises. It turns Northern Ireland into the vaguest of political territories

The agreement is evasive where clarity seems essential. It is highly contingent, and provides for its own adaptation in the future, which has transpired more than once. It resorts to baroque processes (such as the d'Hondt method of allocating political jobs) to give each side some share in power. It makes moral compromises. It turns Northern Ireland into the vaguest of political territories: neither a sovereign state nor adamantly claimed by another sovereign state; not part of the Republic of Ireland yet enmeshed with it via "north-south" bodies.


The only hard principle is consent: the people of Northern Ireland (together with those in the Republic) will decide its constitutional future. The rest is a fog of half-measures. And here it still is, unloved but standing, its provisions often invoked as sacrosanct by parties that dragged their feet at the time.

The agreement has been better as a keeper of the peace than as a foundation for good government. Northern Ireland has had no executive for 15 months. But it says something of its durability that the principal threat to the agreement is an external shock: Brexit, not the document’s inherent frailties or the intransigence of its signatories.

As they discuss their own deal London and Brussels must not be afraid of Belfast-style messiness. Well-intentioned people on both sides have insisted on "clarity" since the negotiations commenced. When it comes to the rights of citizens or the precise "hardness" of the north-south border, how could they not? All the same, the smarter money must be on a deal replete with temporary fixes, provisions for future amendment, clauses into which almost anything can be read and improvised institutions of unspecified lifespan to manage the new arrangements over time.

Major, Blair, Clinton and Ahern stood accused of being as slippery as vaselined eels, but it was precisely their feel for expediency that helped the agreement along

Britain’s wish to stay inside some European regulatory regimes, the mutual desire for a transition period, the long work of agreeing a new trade relationship: these things require an element of fudge and delay. They require a document that is alive rather than a one-off settlement of everything. And this is without accounting for the long-term prospect of Britain changing its mind, or the EU itself morphing into something very different.

The question is whether either side has access to the kind of guile that was in and around Belfast in the 1990s. As well as local politicians such as David Trimble, John Hume and Martin McGuinness, the agreement could draw on a supple generation of brokers from Britain, Ireland and the United States. John Major, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern: these politicians stood accused throughout their careers of being as slippery as vaselined eels, but it was precisely their feel for expediency, their taste for the particular rather than the principle, that helped the agreement along. More idealistic leaders might have blanched at the equivocation.

Whatever emerges between Britain and the EU will not include anything as radical as the “or both” clause, with Britons free to choose between or combine national and European identities. But a similar spirit of ambiguity should inform the negotiations. For such an idealised event it is the pure politics of the agreement that stands out two decades on. For today’s politicians a document so marbled with nuances and subtleties pays rereading. – © The Financial Times Ltd 2018