Meddle with the Belfast Agreement at your peril

The pact is on the cusp of its 25th anniversary and requires the support of majorities in unionist and nationalist camps

Preparations are under way for the celebration in April of the Belfast Agreement’s 25th anniversary. But the birthday boy might be too frail to attend his own party.

The agreement goes beyond its institutions. Nevertheless, they are at its heart. They were intended to improve the government of Northern Ireland and to achieve concrete benefits for all the peoples of these islands. However, working together was, above all, to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation.

Both objectives are far from being fulfilled. There have been periods of progress but also long periods of stasis. For almost 40 per cent of the time since the agreement, its main institutions have been suspended. Northern Ireland’s most pressing social and economic challenges — not least a health service that seriously underperforms even the rest of the creaking NHS — have not been adequately addressed. And politics have become more, not less, polarised.

The DUP’s refusal to allow the Executive and Assembly to function at a time of economic crisis, on account of hostility towards the Northern Ireland protocol not shared by a majority, has further underscored the institutions’ loss of credibility.

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The hope is that new British prime minister Rishi Sunak will negotiate a reasonable compromise on the protocol within coming months. The challenge would then be to persuade the DUP that the European Union has made significant concessions sufficient for it to claim victory and re-enter the institutions. That will not be easy. Some of the DUP’s more ideological demands are unachievable. And its leader has progressively boxed himself in.

What if this strategy fails and the institutions cannot be restored for the foreseeable future?

Nevertheless, polls suggest a majority, by definition including many people in the middle ground, would support a more active role for the Irish Government

Joint authority — notwithstanding strong nationalist support for the idea — is effectively impossible both constitutionally and practically.

Nevertheless, polls suggest a majority, by definition including many people in the middle ground, would support a more active role for the Irish Government. Under the agreement, it can use the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to advance views and proposals on non-devolved matters. It did so vigorously in the 1980s and 1990s under similar provisions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It could do so again.

Direct rule appears unacceptable to nationalists and the Irish Government. This may be in part a matter of symbolism and wording. The alternative is a caretaker government by civil servants. Rule by mandarin would lack accountability, scrutiny and transparency — even more than if British ministers were answering to Parliament. Notwithstanding their merits, civil servants are by nature risk averse. Would they have the desire or the authority, perhaps legally and almost certainly politically, to take difficult or long-term decisions?

Use of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is not dependent on direct rule. But it is worth noting that the more powers were restored to Westminster, expanding the category of non-devolved matters, the greater the formal scope of the Irish role in the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference would become.

In talks of the 1990s unionists succeeded in replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. While an intergovernmental conference was retained as a safety net, much of its machinery has not been required to function. It would be deeply ironic if a consequence of DUP intransigence were to be the reinstatement of arrangements that Ian Paisley said in 1985 Ulster would “never, never, never” accept.

This would be very few people’s first choice, however. Might the review and revision of the institutional arrangements offer a path to their later restoration on a more sustainable basis?

The present impasse has intensified calls for this. Even the Taoiseach — whose government is a joint steward of the agreement — has called the current system not fit for purpose. Various possibilities are being canvassed: a reversion to the joint election of the first and deputy first ministers (or, better, two joint first ministers); the possibility of one of the two biggest parties opting out without paralysing the institutions; a move to voluntary coalition, setting aside the D’Hondt system; and the replacement of the requirement that the most important decisions have the support of the representatives of both communities with a weighted majority system that would not allow one party on its own to block.

However attractive these ideas, the more significant ones pose a fundamental question.

In current circumstances, their purpose would be to bypass the DUP — to the great relief of many, probably most, people in Northern Ireland. The DUP and others who support their boycott represent only about a third of the electorate. However, such a move would be a departure from a fundamental principle: that the institutions, and indeed all aspects of the agreement, require the backing of majorities of unionists and nationalists. Moreover, the need for them to work together if peace and reconciliation are to be sustained has been a cornerstone of modern nationalism going back to the New Ireland Forum of 1983-1984. During the negotiation of the agreement, it was the SDLP that most strongly advocated the concept of parallel consent.

It is true that a growing minority define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. But this should not be exaggerated. In the May elections, 80 per cent of the votes cast were for unionist or nationalist parties. Most unionists supported the DUP. Recent opinion polls suggest that it is consolidating its position and that an overwhelming majority of unionist voters share its antipathy to the protocol. So to bypass the DUP would be to set aside the preferences of most unionists.

Sinn Féin, happy to excoriate the DUP though brushing aside their own previous boycott, has shown no sign of wanting to change the current arrangements

It is also not certain that the UUP’s shoulders would be broad enough for it to sustain participation in an executive without the DUP and against the wishes of most of the unionist community.

Sinn Féin, happy to excoriate the DUP though brushing aside their own previous boycott, has shown no sign of wanting to change the current arrangements. Sauce for the goose could in time be sauce for the gander, they might fear; and significant change would accentuate the question of whether it was not also time to hold a unity referendum, probably sooner than they would really wish.

How would new arrangements be validated? The agreement itself was endorsed by referendum. But there would have been nothing to vote on if sufficient consensus across the major parties had not been achieved in the talks. It might be technically possible for Westminster simply to change the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, with the acquiescence of the Irish Government and of non-unionist parties. Again, however, this would be a significant departure from the 1998 template, this time as regards process.

That one party can exercise a veto is deeply unpalatable. But it is a consequence of a core element of the agreement. Change may well be desirable, but the magnitude of its implications should not be ignored.

  • Rory Montgomery is a former Irish diplomat who was part of the team which negotiated the Belfast Agreement. He is an honorary professor at the Mitchell Institute, Queen’s University Belfast