Its official title is ‘the Belfast Agreement’, but it is known throughout the world as ‘the Good Friday Agreement’ (GFA) because it was signed on Good Friday, 10 April 1998.
Two of its signatories, John Hume and David Trimble, then the leaders of the largest nationalist and unionist political parties, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
Since then, it has been a rocky 25 years and the Agreement has faced a number of crises, too numerous to recount here. For example, since its inception, the Northern Ireland assembly has collapsed or been suspended an incredible six times.
The most recent suspension has come about because of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. The Protocol is an attempt to avoid a land border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The North/South (all-Ireland) institutions established by the GFA are also suspended because of the DUP boycott.
Justice and peace
It is often forgotten that other areas of the Agreement have not been implemented. The most obvious is how Northern Ireland deals with justice issues arising from the past, so-called ‘legacy issues’.
After the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement by a referendum in both parts of Ireland, a commission chaired by archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley was established. It proposed a model somewhat similar to that created in South Africa, with a Truth Commission. Sadly, this was rubbished by all sides and was quietly shelved.
Many people now regret their opposition to Eames-Bradley and, 25 years later, the issue of the past has not been resolved despite attempts by the British government to shut down all future inquiries (see my article in PN 2656).
Another area where progress has stalled: the GFA spoke of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. This has not happened and there is little chance of any progress on the issue in the foreseeable future.
“It is often forgotten that other areas of the Good Friday agreement have not been implemented”
Yet, despite the rocky road of the past 25 years, the GFA has brought to the North an uneasy peace. Political violence has diminished significantly, though it remains higher than probably most people think. At the time of the 20th anniversary of the GFA in 2018, 158 people had been killed since 1998.
Even though each of those deaths is important, this is a significant decrease from the numbers of people killed before 1998.
The most telling criticism of the GFA is that power-sharing between unionists and nationalists, a requirement of the Agreement, has institutionalised sectarianism and strengthened the sectarian parties.
The big political divide in the North, as most people know, is between unionism and nationalism. This is underscored by the fact that most unionists are Protestant and see themselves as British whereas most nationalists are Catholic and see themselves as Irish. [Republicanism is a militant strand within nationalism; the largest republican political party is Sinn Féin – ed]
Northern Ireland no longer has is own prime minister (as was the case from 1922 to 1972) but a first minister and a deputy first minister. Both are joint heads of the Northern Ireland executive [the devolved government of Northern Ireland – ed]. They have absolutely equal powers; neither can act without the agreement of the other. One has to be a unionist, the other a nationalist. Or so it was thought.
Up until now the first minister has been a unionist (David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Paul Givan) whereas the deputy first minister has been a nationalist (Seamus Mallon, Mark Durkan, Martin McGuinness, Michelle O’Neill).
But, 25 years after the signing of the GFA, the political profile of the North is changing, placing significant strain on the institutions it has created. The first, widely predicted for many years, is the emergence of the Catholic community as the larger of the two communities in the North.
This is reflected by the fact that, after the 2022 assembly elections, Sinn Féin is now the largest political party in the North, with its leader, Michelle O’Neill, proudly referred to by republicans as ‘the first minister-designate’.
This has spooked the unionists. Many have said they will not serve in an executive where Sinn Féin holds the first minister post, even though they know the powers and role of the first minister are exactly the same as those of the deputy first minister.
This goes a long way to explain why the DUP continue to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol, even with the most recent amendments negotiated by Rishi Sunak and the EU. Continued opposition means they do not have to say whether they will serve with a republican first minister.
There has been another significant change in the composition of the NI assembly which suggests that, in the medium term, the GFA has not strengthened sectarianism.
It is the growth of the Alliance party, which refuses to designate itself as either unionist or nationalist. In the 2017 assembly election, Alliance secured eight seats on a nine percent vote. In 2022, their seats increased to 17 on 13.5 percent of the vote.
With the DUP dropping from 28 seats (2017) to 25 seats (2022), the prospect that Alliance might overtake the DUP, at some point soon, has highlighted the possibility of the two largest parties in the Assembly being non-unionist.
What might happen in this eventuality is somewhat complicated.
The more immediate problem is how the British and Irish governments might proceed if the DUP continue to refuse to play a role in establishing a new assembly and executive.
There have been a number of suggestions, one of which would be to change the legislation to prevent one party from acting as a block to the formation of a Northern Ireland executive. This would allow an executive to be formed on the basis of a ‘coalition of the willing’. It would effectively remove the right of veto and allow an executive to be formed by those parties willing to do so.
Another is ‘joint authority’ with some kind of power-sharing between the British and Irish governments. This is an option which Britain has consistently ruled out.
With the growth of the Alliance party, a party of the centre, and the election to the assembly of the odd Green and People before Profit representative, might this be evidence that Northern Ireland is moving to more ‘normal’ politics based on a Left/Right divide?
Actually, the North is already divided on a Left/Right basis with nationalist parties steering towards the Left and unionists very much on the Right. The DUP systematically backs the Tory party on its most shocking and harmful social and economic policies such as welfare cuts, opposition to pay rises for nurses and so on.
Then, somewhere in the future, is the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity. Though the referendum is part of the GFA, it is in the hands of the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland to decide when such an poll is to be held. Neither of the two governments seem keen on one at the moment and Sinn Féin alone is pressing for a referendum to be held. The opinion polls suggest that those favouring Irish unity would lose.
Meanwhile the political instability in the North appears likely to continue for some time to come.