Sir, – In my opinion, we need to reject the pessimism and hopelessness of Alex Kane’s vision of the future of devolved government in the North (“Is the Belfast Agreement worth saving?”, Opinion & Analysis, December 28th).
What he failed to say in the article is the alternative is permanent direct rule (or at least until a border poll delivers unification), as though Northern Ireland is the only devolved region in the UK that is unfit or unable to run its own affairs and needs “mother Westminster” to run it in conjunction with an unaccountable NI civil service.
It may well be, as Mr Kane says, that 80 per cent of voters still choose parties allied to the two constitutional traditions, but the growth of the centre ground is evident in Alliance increasing its Stormont representation from 8 to 17 seats last May and the progress in integrated education. The younger generation in the North is rejecting compartmentalisation. The appointment of Joe Kennedy as US envoy to the North may also act as a catalyst for change.
If unionism has “given up” on devolution that is a problem for it, but it’s not a veto over reform. The rest of us see opportunities available, if there is a willingness to work within the existing structures. – Yours, etc,
A chara, – Alex Kane concludes that some temporary sticking plaster solution may (just about) be possible but thinks that “increasing numbers across the entire pro-union communities have concluded that the assembly and executive – the key components of the Belfast Agreement – are not worth saving”.
Presumably those unionists prefer the current de facto system of direct rule from Westminster to implementing the solemn agreement they signed in 1998, on the basis of which we changed our constitution and formally recognised British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, until such time as a majority there decided otherwise.
But if unionists are not going to uphold their end of the bargain just because they don’t like the consequences of the Brexit they so avidly campaigned for, does that not mean that the time has come for the British and Irish governments to revisit the Belfast Agreement, and particularly to reinvigorate the Strand 3 institutions of the agreement: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body?
Both governments have a vested interest in the good governance and economic development of Northern Ireland: the UK government because of the rapid increase in the Barnett formula subvention, now variously estimated at between £10 billion and £15 billion a year, and rapidly becoming unaffordable for the British exchequer. The UK economy is also being hugely damaged by the current stand-off with the EU over the protocol.
The Irish Government has a vested interest because of the increasing numbers of Irish citizens and passport holders north of the border who are being denied their democratic right to have a say in the governance of Northern Ireland, including their right to nominate a first minister. Border areas on both sides of the border are also increasingly underdeveloped, compared to the rest of the country, because of the continuing political instability.
Just as there will be consequences for the UK for any failure to implement the withdrawal agreement and protocol with the EU, there must be consequences for the unionist community if they fail to honour the Belfast Agreement, in all its dimensions. Simply falling back on direct rule from Westminster is not consistent with the Belfast Agreement: that is not what the Irish people voted for when we changed our Constitution.
If the Strand 1 institutions – the Assembly and Executive – are not going to be allowed to function, then the Strand 3 institutions must pick up the slack and provide the leadership Northern Ireland so desperately needs at this critical time, if necessary, by forming an inter-governmental executive for Northern Ireland based on the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. – Is mise,
Sir, – Alex Kane asks if the Good Friday Agreement should be saved. The answer is yes. – Yours, etc,