Listening to the opinions and concerns of key players from the EU, US and British and Irish governments over the last couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Belfast Agreement had been a roaring success since 1998. Yes, we have replaced conflict with conflict stalemate and, generally speaking, the shadow of the gun has been removed from everyday life; yet the most commonly aired argument in favour of the Belfast Agreement is that it has made things “better than they used to be”. And for that we should be grateful.
But even if a resolution to the ongoing protocol crisis was agreed and both Sinn Féin and the DUP were minded to reboot the executive, it wouldn’t mean we’d have a genuinely consensual, harmonious, power-sharing government in which all the executive parties would take collective responsibility for a collectively agreed programme for government. Such a thing has never existed. Indeed, the St Andrews agreement in 2006 (which followed nine years of not being able to produce a stable executive) just gave us an arrangement best described – by me, as it happens – as two governments in the one executive.
Since 2007, one crisis has followed another. One British/Irish government intervention has followed another. One stand-off or suspension has followed another. One complete meltdown has followed another. One US special envoy has followed another. In other words, while the reason for the crisis, intervention, stand-off, suspension, meltdown and envoy may change, the stasis appears to be serial and unavoidable.
The Belfast Agreement cannot and will not survive if we reach the point at which the institutions are permanently inoperable. And I think we are reaching that point much more quickly than most people realise. Mandatory mutual veto, mandatory mutual consent required for key decisions and mandatory coalition is now underpinned by mutual mistrust (which isn’t mandatory but may as well be) and overshadowed by the inevitability of a border poll. So, as I say, even if a deal is cut on the protocol (and that remains a big ask), all it does is keep things rumbling along until the next crisis.
Party v collective
At what point do we accept that power-sharing (which I’ll define as two communities and a growing demographic of “others” co-operating together in common cause) is not going to happen? Fair enough, the parties have often agreed to appoint ministers and even wave the occasional programme for government in the air, but the ministers mostly operate in silos and pursue individual party interests rather than collective interests. And even when they pretend to agree on something, their backbenchers tend to be given free rein to criticise what is supposed to be executive policy.
At what point do we acknowledge that, after 25 years and for all the talk about the rise of the centre ground at the last election, almost 80 per cent of those who voted still did so for parties which clearly identify as either pro-United Kingdom or pro-united Ireland; and that 80 per cent of the assembly seats are still occupied by those who have designated as unionist or nationalist. Opinion polls may have suggested that a whopping majority of voters claimed to be prioritising socioeconomic issues over the constitutional question, yet a whopping majority voted for what are best understood as “constitutional question” parties.
At what point do we acknowledge that the rules of how the executive is formed, or the assembly functions, will not be changed if change involved rules that would allow the sidelining or exclusion of one community or the other? Ironically, the most notable change to the original agreement – at St Andrew’s and underwritten by Sinn Féin and the DUP – actually made it much easier to sustain the us-and-them nature of politics by cementing the headcount approach into a keystone position in the overall structures.
Hope of change
Maybe the ultimate irony, though, is that so much effort is being made to defend the Belfast Agreement (which I can understand) without trying to understand why the institutional aspects of it (particularly the assembly and executive) have failed to deliver on the hope of change that was at the heart of the agreement and the referendum. Worse, with the shadow of a border poll likely to hang over every dimension of local politics for at least the next decade, there will be no serious or sustained effort to address the flaws and failings of the key institutions.
Which means, as I noted earlier, that we are likely to continue the stop/start cycle of showdown, stand-off, suspension, crisis talks and further collapse. The most blinding acceptance of that reality is to be found in legislative changes made earlier this year which allow the executive to morph into the political equivalent of Miss Havisham for up to six months at a time – albeit with no great expectations of success. Indeed, to torture this particular metaphor, Stormont would become a very bleak house.
So, here’s the conundrum: how do we save the Belfast Agreement if we continue to ignore the fact that its key institutions have had more experience of mothballing than my late great-aunt’s fur coats? I accept that the Belfast Agreement project is still regarded as being too strategically important to be seen to fail; which is why the British, Irish and American governments are focusing so much attention on it. But the institutions were always intended to be more important than the overarching structures.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen and heard so many interested parties line up in support of the Belfast Agreement – including some who have shown no previous interest in it. It’s just a pity they haven’t shown a similar interest in finding ways of making its political-electoral institutions more effective and more suited to addressing the mountain of socio/economic/health problems Northern Ireland has faced since 1998.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast and former director of communications for the UUP