Belfast Agreement is in need of reform

A fundamental political realignment

Sir, – I take issue with Rory Montgomery’s contention that reforming and reinforcing the Belfast Agreement so that Northern Ireland’s institutions of government actually work constitutes “meddling” with the agreement (“Meddle with the Belfast Agreement at your peril”, Opinion & Analysis, November 26th).

On the contrary, in time of crisis in our economy and our health service and at a time when many of the basic assumptions which applied in 1998 apply no longer valid, it constitutes an urgent necessity.

First, there is a tendency implicit in Mr Montgomery’s argument that the institutions are some sort of “optional extra”, whose operation may at any time reasonably be stopped provided it is by a party which is “unionist” or “nationalist”. On the contrary, the devolved institutions are Northern Ireland’s government – when they are brought down, Northern Ireland ceases to be governed. At best, this vacuum is filled by attempts at administration to cover up the cracks but still leave vital issues such as health reform and economic reinvigoration flailing; at worst, they are filled with the dark shadows of extremism as “politics” shifts from the debating chamber to the street. Such a vacuum may be theoretically justified, but it is practically unacceptable and it causes real harm to the public.

Second, things have changed. Northern Ireland has seen, no doubt partially as a consequence of Brexit moving the UK and Ireland apart but also because it is now inhabited mainly by a post-agreement generation, a fundamental political realignment.


It is unjustifiable, even in theory, to suggest that a “unionist” or “nationalist” party should be allowed to exercise a veto on the very operation of government in Northern Ireland, but that the greatly increasing number who have disavowed unionism or nationalism at the ballot box should be left utterly disenfranchised – subject to the whims of others’ vetoes but unable to wield their own. This failure to represent those who vote beyond the traditional dividing lines was a failing even of the original agreement and was only made worse at St Andrews, but to ignore it now when fully 20 per cent of Assembly members are now of the “other” designation is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Third, it should be noted that the Alliance Party, which was as insistent on reform of the institutions when it had six seats as it is now with 17, has put forward a perfectly reasonable reform option which constitutes not “meddling” but actually “reinforcing”. Exceptionally (by the standards of normal democracies), the DUP, purely by virtue of being the largest party within its designation and without being the largest party overall, would still on the basis of the last election be automatically entitled to ministerial posts (including the joint highest). The difference is that should it choose not to take on the responsibility of government it would simply move into opposition, rather than being allowed to block entirely the operation of the institutions and of democracy itself.

Ultimately, the purpose of the Belfast Agreement was to enable Northern Ireland to be governed purely democratically, while reflecting its divisions. Those divisions are no longer what they were, and that should be regarded as a triumph to be celebrated, not a problem to be overcome.

Some 25 years on, is it really too much to ask that the Belfast Agreement be reformed so that those who wish to shirk their responsibilities should no longer be rewarded for doing so, and so that the people of Northern Ireland are given the same basic right of democratic representation and scrutiny taken for granted on the rest of the island? – Is mise,



Co Antrim.

Sir, – Rory Montgomery achieved the improbable by considering the Northern Ireland political impasse without including the word “Brexit” in his analysis. In doing so, he ignored the underlying context for the difficulties. He also overlooked the opinion of many who believe the DUP supported Brexit – without worrying about community consensus in the North – because they regarded it as a means of ditching the Belfast Agreement, which they have consistently opposed.

The DUP’s support for Brexit was despite their party being warned that logically separation from the EU would lead to a hard border somewhere, and most likely in the Irish Sea. It is therefore irritating for the DUP to demand consensus to solve a problem that they (and their allies in the Conservative Party’s European Research Group) created, without concern for community relations.

While negotiations between the UK and the EU need to accelerate to resolve the working of the NI Protocol, relationships between the parties will also need to be rescued. Solving this crisis requires highly competent arbitration of the type shown in the past by George Mitchell and Richard Haass, and also by one (and only one) recent NI Secretary of State, Julian Smith. The actions and attitudes of the current and most other recent secretaries of state have merely made matters worse.

The role of a trusted external broker to assist this is sorely needed. – Yours, etc,