Is the Good Friday Agreement worth saving at this stage?

You can’t have a middle ground between constitutional polar opposites, particularly against a background of competing narratives and long-term agendas

In mid-April 2023, Queen’s University Belfast will host an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The organisers will be hoping that the event will be more upbeat than the 20th anniversary, when the assembly was almost halfway through a mothballing that was to last until January 2020. Yet here it is, mothballed again and with no guarantee that the crisis will have been resolved by the time the birthday cake and champagne have been set out on the tables.

Indeed, it is possible the assembly may never be restored. The DUP, the largest unionist party – and without whom a rebooting cannot happen – insists it will not agree to return to office until the Northern Ireland protocol has either been removed altogether or overhauled beyond recognition. That outcome seems unlikely. So unless the DUP agrees to a climbdown of some sort – which would be met with widespread antagonism from significant elements of loyalism, unionism and the Orange Order – the present assembly will fall within the next three months.

The Northern Secretary has the option at that point of calling another election, but I would be surprised if the DUP didn’t improve its position as the largest unionist party, even if it didn’t eclipse Sinn Féin as the largest party overall; leaving the crisis and impasse precisely as it is now. And if the EU and UK had reached what they jointly regarded as a solution to the protocol dilemma it would be impossible for the DUP to be offered “something better” to nudge it over the line.

The survival of the assembly, in the first instance, depends on whatever decision the DUP makes in response to the EU/UK deal – expected in a matter of weeks. There is a chance, albeit slim, of either an unexpectedly easy sell for the DUP or of Jeffrey Donaldson choosing to save devolution by facing down internal and external opponents; but I also think that increasing numbers across the entire pro-union communities have concluded that the assembly and executive – the key components of the Good Friday Agreement – are not worth saving.


I always feared this moment would come; and it’s a pessimism which predates the Brexit result. I had hoped the Good Friday Agreement, which I supported, might lead to a new way of doing politics in Northern Ireland. It didn’t. All it did was prove that you can’t have a middle ground between constitutional polar opposites, particularly against a background of competing narratives and long-term agendas.

The best you can hope for, it seems, is conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution. Since the first assembly election in 1998 around 80 per cent of those who vote continue to do so for parties which have an unambiguous position on the constitutional question. I don’t see much prospect of that changing, meaning that the two big nationalist/unionist blocs will continue to exercise a veto which can, as and when they choose, trigger the next crisis.

Since 1998 one crisis has followed another, and the assembly has either been in suspended animation or standoff more often than it has functioned. Even when it has functioned the parties have tended to adopt a silo mentality to the departments they hold and the programme for government they supposedly jointly agreed. The idea that an unexpected “and with one bound they were free” resolution to the present crisis would make a button of difference or prevent other crises is, to put it bluntly, fatuous.

These observations are, I believe, worth making, because they feed into the ongoing debate about whether the Good Friday Agreement can be saved by a combination of reforming and rewriting. Those who think so pin their hopes on the belief that preventing a single party (the largest unionist or nationalist party) from exercising a veto on the executive being formed would mean that a minority could not prevent the majority from governing.

But having a check on the majority is the essence of the powersharing which underpins the Good Friday Agreement. Had that check not been put in place – and in stone – the Good Friday Agreement would not have been signed.

Similarly, replacing mandatory coalition with voluntary coalition won’t solve the problem because a “weighted majority” would still be required for votes and one community bloc would still be able to exercise a very significant veto on a raft of key issues. So, putting it simply, I don’t see how you rewrite the rules to the point at which a unionist or nationalist bloc would not have possession of a veto lifeline.

A few months ago I wrote that I would like to see the 25th anniversary event used as a platform for discussing “what went wrong after 1998”. Yes, what we have is, in many ways, preferable to what we had and for that we should be grateful. But what we haven’t had is a stability that can be taken for granted, or genuine, credible powersharing, or a programme for government which is fully endorsed by the executive parties, or even basic civility between key political players.

We haven’t seen the arrival of the new voices and vehicles you’d expect to see flow from a peace agreement. And I’m not persuaded we’ve seen much in the way of burgeoning community integration.

So 2022 ends, as it began, with a crisis. Unlike previous crises this may be the existential one. Whatever happens between now and next April it remains essential that we subject the Good Friday Agreement to a forensic investigation based on two brutally simple questions: what went wrong after 1998 and not can it be saved (because it can, with sticking plaster), but should it be saved?

Fair enough, it’s worth raising a celebratory glass for the good that has come from the Good Friday Agreement but continuing the pretence that it will, somehow, deliver the hope and harmony expected of it in 1998 is now plain delusory. New thinking and recalibrated hopes are required.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party