Majority of people in Northern Ireland say Belfast Agreement needs reform

Support remains strong, but Northern Ireland Life and Times survey shows appetite for change amid persistent gridlock

Lanark Way interface gates, which allow traffic to move between the Republican and Loyalist areas of Belfast during limited times of the day, was painted ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Photograph: PA/Liam McBurney

A majority of people in Northern Ireland believe the Belfast Agreement need to be reformed, according to a new report.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey shows 69 per cent agree the Belfast Agreement remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, but 55 per cent believe it needs at least some reform. One in six believe it should be removed altogether.

The results were analysed in a report, Political attitudes in Northern Ireland 25 years after the Agreement, released as part of the 2022 questions on political attitudes in the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey by Ark.

The report, which is a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, was co-authored by Prof Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s.

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The results showed that an almost identical proportion (45 per cent) of the three main communal blocs feel that the agreement remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland.

However, 27 per cent of unionists believe the agreement is no longer/has never been a good basis for governing Northern Ireland. This is compared to 13 per cent of those saying they are “neither unionist nor nationalist” and 8 per cent of nationalists.

Younger people are the least confident about the 1998 agreement, with 30 per cent of under-35s answering “don’t know” when asked their opinion on it.

Although most respondents believe the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be to be in the UK under a devolved settlement (35 per cent), support for this has fallen dramatically since 2016 when it was 54 per cent.

There has been a steady and equally dramatic rise in support for Irish unification since the Brexit referendum, which now stands at 31 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in 2015.

If there were a Border poll tomorrow, 47 per cent of respondents say they would vote for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK (down 6 percentage points from 2020), with 35 per cent saying they would vote for a united Ireland.

Only 38 per cent say Brexit has made a united Ireland more desirable, with a plurality (42 per cent) still saying it has made no difference to their views.

The relative size of the groups identifying as nationalist (26 per cent), unionist (31 per cent) or “neither” (38 per cent) has become closer, but there has been a particular strengthening of nationalist identities since 2016.

Levels of distrust in the UK government are highest among nationalists (86 per cent); distrust in the Irish Government and the EU is highest among unionists (both 55 per cent); and distrust in the NI Executive is highest among those who are “neither unionist nor nationalist” (60 per cent).

“On the anniversary of the agreement, it is a sign of its success that the large majority think it remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland,” said Prof Hayward.

“However, the survey also shows that there are consequences to a lack of fully-functioning institutions.

“Declining confidence in devolution, growing anticipation of Irish unification, and high levels of distrust in political actors reflect the some of the post-Brexit flux experienced in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Rosher added: “Although the so-called agreement generation is the cohort with the lowest levels of confidence in the agreement, it is also the one with the highest level of trust in political actors.

“This could either be because 18-24 year olds simply accept dysfunctional politics as the norm or, more optimistically, because they have no direct experience of the Troubles that informed the current political set up.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter