Dennis Kennedy: North’s biggest problem is Belfast Agreement

The 1998 deal institutionalised tribalism and built it into mandatory coalition

Why, after almost 20 years in business, is the Northern Ireland Assembly in disarray? Do we blame the politicians, the people or perhaps the blueprint?

The villains of the immediate brouhaha are Arlene Foster and the DUP, for their incompetence and pig-headedness, and Sinn Féin, for exploiting their maladroitness and pulling the roof down to forward their own agenda.

Sympathy for the people of Northern Ireland is in short supply, and perhaps it should be, for the politicians are in power because the people voted them in. Or does the problem lie with the Belfast Agreement itself? The plaudits heaped on the agreement have made criticising it an unpopular pursuit.

Terrorist violence has greatly decreased, and there are many areas where nationalists and unionists work together. Northern Ireland is in some ways a much better place than it was in 1998. But violence has not disappeared, the threat level is still “severe”. Gangsterism linked to terror groups is a big problem. Politics is as tribal as it was in 1998, even more so.


Politics was then dominated by the more moderate varieties of unionism and nationalism. In the Westminster election of 1997 the Ulster Unionists came top with 33 per cent of the vote, nearly 2½ times the share won by the Rev Ian Paisley's DUP. The SDLP's share was 24 per cent, comfortably ahead of Sinn Féin's 16 per cent. Alliance got 8.5 per cent.

Tribal categories

The Belfast Agreement institutionalised tribalism with its requirement that all elected politicians be classified as unionist, nationalist or other; and it built these tribal categories into the creation of a mandatory coalition. Two decades on, the extremes rule. In last year’s Assembly poll the DUP won almost 30 per cent of the votes cast, while the UUP struggled to 12.6 per cent. Sinn Féin’s 24 per cent was double the SDLP’s 12 per cent. Alliance was down to 7 per cent.

In the 1997 election the turnout was 67 per cent, while in 2016 it was under 55 per cent. Almost 20 years of devolved government have done little to stimulate involvement in the political process. Now almost half the population entitled to vote can’t be bothered to.

The agreement was not a settlement. It was an armistice between the Provisional IRA, represented by Sinn Féin, and the British government, backed by Dublin. The objective of both governments was to persuade republicans to end violence and give up their arms, in return for promise of progress by political means.

The documents making up the agreement demonstrate this. In them there is only one mention of terrorists, and that refers to world terrorism, not the Irish variety. Irish or Northern Irish terrorists become “paramilitaries”. The word surrender does not appear at all. There is no suggestion that terrorists be required to surrender, they are not even asked to surrender their illegally-held arms. Instead we have the cringe-making request for “decommissioning”.

The agreement was not a settlement in that it fudged the fundamental issue been unionism and nationalism – whether Northern Ireland should continue in the UK or leave and join a united Ireland. Its declaration that the status quo would be dismantled in favour of a united Ireland at any time a majority in Northern Ireland so voted was no more a solution than the original 1921 agreement that the North could opt out of a Free State Ireland turned out to be.

To a unionist community prone to neurosis and only too aware of the possibility of Catholics outnumbering Protestants, this turned unionism towards tribalism, not away from it. The big all-island vote in favour of the agreement masked the size of the unionist vote against. At most probably 53 per cent of the unionist community backed it.

On the eve of the referendum Tony Blair sought to reassure unionists by promising that those who used or threatened violence would be excluded from the government of Northern Ireland. A year later the Executive was formed. It included two Sinn Féin Ministers, one of whom was Martin McGuinness, widely believed to have been on the IRA army council.

No IRA arms had been decommissioned and it was 2005 before the IRA claimed all its arms had been put beyond use. During that time it was in illegal possession of arms and therefore, whatever declarations it made, was clearly threatening violence. In that same period the DUP’s share of the vote rose to 30 per cent, and the Ulster Unionists’ declined to 15 per cent.

First Minister

This election is unlikely to change anything. The contest will be over retaining the office of First Minister for unionism, with the DUP reminding voters that only they can hope to do that – a platform likely to offset disenchantment with their incompetence, pro-Brexit stance and general demeanour.

The First Minister is first only by title, but the symbolic importance of the post to unionists is great. He or she is seen as personifying Northern Ireland and its unionist character. To unionists a Sinn Féiner in the post is unthinkable, particularly one who, like McGuinness, could never bring himself to use the term “Northern Ireland”, even though it appears about 150 times in the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Féin’s new leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, seems to suffer from similar terminological inhibitions.

A return to direct rule seems likely. That could be an opportunity to revisit the 1998 agreement, a chance to redraft it away from tribalism towards moderation by providing for an Executive based on a voluntary coalition of parties agreeing on a programme of sensible policies on flags, the Irish language, the European Union, cross-Border bodies, education . . .

Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times