Calls for a review of the Northern Ireland peace deal to end the Stormont standoff

Calls for a review of the Northern Ireland peace deal to end the Stormont standoff

Calls for a review of the Northern Ireland peace deal to end the Stormont standoff

If there is one thing that all communities in Northern Ireland can agree on, it is that their political institutions, created under a historic peace agreement in 1998, should work better.

The region has been without a government for about 40 percent of the nearly quarter-century since David Trimble, who died last month, managed to pressure the then Unionist majority to agree to power-sharing in the Good Friday Agreement when he was leader. from Ulster. unionist party.

With local politics back on the rocks (Northern Ireland has not had a fully functioning deputy executive for six months due to a dispute over the implementation of Brexit trade deals), calls for a renewal of the historic deal are growing apace. as the 25th anniversary of its signing approaches.

“Some of the mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement are as destructive to Northern Ireland’s success as they are helpful, because one side can topple the house of cards,” said Niamh Gallagher, professor of British and Irish history at the University of Ireland. Cambridge. “It is absolutely necessary to abolish it.”

The Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, and established a framework for the institutions of the region, as well as for cooperation between the north and south of Ireland and the United Kingdom. and Ireland. All three are currently under pressure.

The agreement has been updated since 1998, but the principle that both unionist and nationalist communities must share power in executive government — and that if one party does not consent, the other cannot act alone — remains sacrosanct.

The Democratic Unionist party, which defends the continuity of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and was the largest political force in the region until it was dethroned by the nationalist Sinn Féin party in the May elections, has paralyzed the executive since February. He is trying to force an end to Brexit controls on goods coming in from Britain.

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Since May, the DUP has gone further, even refusing to allow the region’s assembly to function, a standoff that could lead to new elections within months.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, key decisions made by shared executive power need the support of the community. The agreement also ensures that there can be no change to Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK without the consent of the majority of people in the region.

The DUP has argued that its opposition to the post-Brexit trade deal cannot therefore be ignored.

The UK government agrees, saying that Northern Ireland’s delicate inter-community balance has been upset and that the Good Friday Agreement has been so undermined that trade deals for the region agreed with Brussels, called the Northern Ireland Protocol North, they must break.

That was the basis of a bill introduced at Westminster in June by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the leading candidate to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, and supported by his rival for the Conservative Party leadership, Rishi Sunak.

But some Northern Ireland pundits have said London is twisting the truth.

“The UK government has adopted a one-sided analysis of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” Andrew McCormick, a former senior Northern Ireland Brexit official, wrote in a new paper for the Irish think tank Institute of International and European Affairs. .

He said the government would set a “dangerous precedent to respond to one side’s refusal to participate in institutions by granting a concession in their favor.”

No unionist politician supports the protocol and says the deal, which brought Northern Ireland into the EU’s single market for goods and imposed controls on its entry into the region, undermines its place within the UK.

However, the UK solution, breaking parts of the protocol, is at odds with the views of the majority of lawmakers elected to the Stormont assembly who see it as feasible, albeit with some adjustments.

Since 1998: Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, left, US Senator George Mitchell, center, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair after signing the Good Friday Agreement © Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images

A quarter of a century after the concern and hope that the Good Friday Agreement represented, the agreement remains the only viable solution when it comes to safeguarding the concerns of both communities.

But politicians, former civil servants and academics say it could be updated, not least to acknowledge that Northern Ireland’s old binary political preferences are changing.

The Alianza party, which does not align itself with any community and more than doubled its seats in May to become the third-largest political force, wants reforms to ensure an end to “bailout politics.” Sinn Féin brought down the executive from 2017-22 in a row over a failed power plan.

“The logic of the Good Friday Agreement remains compelling,” said Rory Montgomery, a former top Irish diplomat and member of the team that negotiated it.

“There are improvements to be made, but I am not convinced that any of them will drastically change the situation. . . Unless and until the protocol issue is resolved, there will be no more decentralized institutions,” he added.

For Alan Whysall, a former senior Northern Ireland official who worked on the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement is “limping” and “needs to go through a comprehensive renewal process”.

The Northern Ireland protocol has angered unionists © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Among the areas where “new life” could be injected into the agreement, he sees policing, dealing with persistent threats from paramilitary groups, low levels of integrated education, and overcoming divisions on how to deal with the past. The UK is pushing controversial amnesty-style measures.

“The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the only basis for policy. There is no plausible alternative framework capable of widespread support,” Whysall said in a recent report for the constitution unit at University College London. “But the foundations of the deal are now shaky.”

He said the anniversary of the deal was the obvious opportunity for a reset. A survey last month by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies found that more than 81 per cent of people in the region believed there should be “an independent review of the assembly and the executive to explore how they might work better.” ”.

That was supported by 74.4 percent of unionists, 87.2 percent of nationalists and 85.5 percent of people who did not identify with any community.

However, neither Truss nor Sunak have suggested that a review of the Good Friday Agreement be planned. Lord David Frost, the former Brexit minister, has called in a new essay for the protocol dispute to be resolved “to bring Northern Ireland firmly, lastingly and fully within the United Kingdom”.

But Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the UK government needed to argue that the Good Friday Agreement was at risk in order to claim that its intentions to break the protocol were necessary.

“All the current difficulties stem from the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the subsequent decision to leave the customs union and the single market,” he said. “So UK policy needs to be reviewed, not the Good Friday Agreement.”

Video: Northern Ireland tries to heal a legacy of separation | FT movie

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