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Paul Vallely: Problems remain in Northern Ireland

14 April 2023

But is reforming the peace agreement the solution, asks Paul Vallely


A pair of glasses belonging to John Hume on a copy of the Good Friday Agreement, dated April 10 1998 signed by nationalist Social Labour and Democratic (SDLP) negotiators and members

A pair of glasses belonging to John Hume on a copy of the Good Friday Agreement, dated April 10 1998 signed by nationalist Social Labour and Democrati...

THE Good Friday Agreement has been much in the news, with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the deal which brought peace to the island of Ireland after 30 years of entrenched paramilitary violence — and estab­­lished power-sharing between unionists and na­­tionalists at Stormont.

It has proved a remark­­able achievement; but has the time come for the Agreement to be reworked?

The original negotiations addressed a seem­ingly intractable problem, and required com­promise on all sides. The UK Government relinquished its unconditional claim to sover­eignty, and the Irish public voted to amend their con­stitu­tion to remove an explicit territorial claim over Northern Ireland. The Agreement enshrines the principle of consent: Northern Ireland’s place in the UK will remain, but only so long as the majority of its people wish it to do so.

But the Agreement hands a veto over the running of the province to the largest nationalist and unionist parties, which means that one side can effectively hold the As­­sem­bly and executive to ransom indefinitely — as Sinn Fein did for three years over a renewable-energy scandal, and as the DUP has been doing for the past year in protest against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Various voices have been raised, suggesting a change to the power dispensation in Northern Ireland. A former Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has written 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”.

The cross-community Alliance Party is lob­bying for a change in the rules to allow the ma­­jority of Stormont politicians to get back to work. One of the architects of the Agreement, the for­mer Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has suggested that the Agreement should be re­­formed to stop one party from unilaterally col­­lapsing the devolved government.

Such proposals are superficially attractive. But the continuing instability of North­­ern Ireland’s political institutions is not the prob­­lem. It is merely a symptom of the problem — which is the lack of real trust, still, between the two com­mu­nities.

Another of the Agreement’s prime movers, the former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair, put his fin­­ger on that this week when he observed that the key thing for outsiders to understand about such a delicate settlement is that it can only be achieved through “influence” rather than “pressure.” And the veto can only be removed from the Good Friday Agreement with cross-community consent — the very consensus so lacking currently from its implementation.

Interestingly, the former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams demonstrated his understanding of this when he called last week for the DUP to be given “a wee bit of space” to come to a more sensible position on Rishi Sunak’s improved deal with the EU on trade across the border between North and South.

The Good Friday Agreement did not create trust so much as clear the space in which trust could grow. Changing the rules of the institutions of devolution will not foster a more complete reconciliation, and may do the opposite. Peace comes dropping slow, as the Irish poet said. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to the violence that was the chief impediment to peace. Thousands are alive today who might otherwise not be. Let us, for the time being, simply rejoice in that.

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