Belfast Agreement is in need of reform

Time for clarity on British Irish Intergovernmental Conference

Sir, – I refer to my former colleague Rory Montgomery’s piece “Meddle with the Belfast Agreement at your peril” (Opinion & Analysis, November 26th).

Meddle does not seem to me to be the right word. Rather reform is. I agree with many in Northern Ireland that the internal institutional arrangements in the Belfast Agreement 1998, and also the St Andrews Agreement 2006, do need change a quarter century on to reflect present reality in the Assembly.

I would add personally that as joint secretary of the Anglo-Irish Conference in Belfast in the 1990s I thought the governments and parties were deciding too readily that voluntary coalition was not possible. Rather sectarian politics were entrenched.

Whatever about then, it is possible now.


The agreements require amendment.

To judge from recent comment on both nationalist and unionist sides there is also need for greater clarity on the question of Dublin’s involvement in internal NI matters in the event of direct rule being restored. The joint authority proposed by Sinn Féin and SDLP is not in the 1998 Agreement; neither is the response of some unionists, for example, Belfast News Letter columnist Owen Polley on November 26th, that “The Belfast Agreement specifically excluded Dublin from having a say in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs”.

It did not.

Paragraph 5 of the section in the Belfast Agreement dealing with the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) is worth re-reading : “In recognition of the Irish Government’s special interest in Northern Ireland and of the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland, there will be regular and frequent meetings of the Conference concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals. These meetings, to be co-chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would also deal with all-island and cross-border co-operation on non-devolved issues.”

To the drafters and to others with a close interest at the time this involvement of Dublin in non-devolved matters clearly meant Dublin would be involved in NI internal matters as it was under the Anglo Irish Agreement 1985-1998, ‘vigorously” as Rory Montgomery puts it, if devolution were suspended and direct rule restored. But in 1998 it was not so stated fully and explicitly, and 25 years later different realities are propounded, some mistakenly but others deliberately for political purposes. This will have happened too due to the determined will of both governments in that quarter century to have a working Assembly and Executive. In consequence, the BIIGC has not met “regularly and frequently” as prescribed in the Belfast Agreement, in fact it has met so rarely and with such little impact overall that its potential in the case of direct rule is now widely unknown or deliberately misrepresented. Time for both governments to clarify. – Yours, etc,


(Former official dealing

with NI in Dublin

1983-90 and

Belfast 1990-95),


Co Dublin.