Is it time for a new Good Friday Agreement?

Twenty-five years on, the ‘brilliant framework for peace is proving a poor foundation for effective government’

The Northern Ireland centenary parade at Stormont in May 2022
A majority of unionists would now vote against the Good Friday Agreement
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is trying to avoid becoming yet another prime minister undone by the seemingly impossible problem of Brexit and Northern Ireland.

As negotiations continue over a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol, “senior Brexiteers within government will come under intense pressure from hardline colleagues to take a stand if Sunak’s deal fails to win the all-important support of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland”, Politico reported.

With the DUP once again holding both Westminster and the devolved assembly hostage, the ongoing stand-off and potentially permanent collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland has led some to suggest it is the Good Friday Agreement itself that needs reforming.

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What did the papers say?

Sunak’s “Brexit dilemma” is that “he needs to reach an agreement with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as restoring the Northern Ireland executive”, said The New Statesman.

The problem is that the Good Friday Agreement hands a veto over the executive to the largest nationalist and unionist parties, meaning one side can effectively hold the assembly to ransom indefinitely – as has been the case for the past year with the DUP boycotting the executive in protest over the protocol’s terms.

Emma de Souza, writing in the Irish Examiner, said the DUP’s “undemocratic actions” show that “public and good governance are second to the demands and agenda of a political party that has been gifted the power to pull down the government at its every whim”.

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis wrote in The Telegraph of the need to “be honest about the fact that it was a brilliant framework for peace but is proving a poor foundation for effective government”.

Lewis points to the fact that under the current terms of the agreement the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which has seen its support surge in recent years, could never have the right to nominate the first or deputy first minister, even if it were to become the largest party at Stormont.

“Democracy cannot succeed when it is set in tram lines that can never cross,” he said, adding it was “time for us to confront difficult questions about whether the electoral system in Northern Ireland properly reflects the people and communities it is designed to serve”.

Former PM John Major, who did much to lay the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s, agreed when addressing the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee earlier this month.

He suggested that with the core unionist and nationalist parties less dominant than they once were, the agreement may need to be changed to prevent one party from collapsing the executive. One idea aimed at breaking the current impasse suggested by the chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, Simon Hoare, was for the government to hand power to the next largest unionist party.

What next?

With polls suggesting a majority of unionists would vote against the Good Friday Agreement if a referendum were held today, “this is not on the cards for the moment”, said The New Statesman.

“Any change must be agreed by the UK and Irish governments, and the former has said it isn’t interested,” the magazine added. But if the government is unable to get the DUP back into the executive “then calls to revise the agreement could grow”.

“Those who profess to support the Good Friday Agreement should not be calling for the DUP to be ignored, but the opposite,” argued UnHerd’s political editor Tom McTague.

The deal now being negotiated between Britain and the EU “may be the last best hope of saving power-sharing in Northern Ireland this side of a Labour government”, he said, “but unless it can win the consent of both communities it will not end the crisis because, in the end, it is a political crisis of consent, not a technocratic one of management”.

For the time being these larger constitutional questions “must wait”, said Lewis in The Telegraph. “It is difficult to see how we can dedicate efforts to those challenging conversations when the key issue at the heart of Stormont’s current impasse remains.”

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