If there’s one thing all communities in Northern Ireland can agree on, it’s that their political institutions – established under a landmark peace deal 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 persuade the then-Unionist majority to accept power-sharing in the Good Friday Agreement when he was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. side.
With local politics on the rocks again – Northern Ireland has not had a fully functioning delegated executive for six months due to a row over the implementation of Brexit trade arrangements – calls for a review of the historic deal are mounting as the 25th anniversary of signing is approaching.
“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 bring down the house of cards,” said Niamh Gallagher, a lecturer in British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge. “That should absolutely be abolished.”
The Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, and created a framework for the institutions in the region, as well as for cooperation between Northern-Southern Ireland and the UK-Irish. All three are currently under pressure.
The agreement has been updated since 1998, but the principle that both unionist and nationalist communities should share power in the executive government – and that if one side doesn’t agree, the other can’t do it alone – remains sacred.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which champions Northern Ireland’s lasting place in the UK and was the largest political force in the region until dethroned in May by the nationalist party Sinn Féin, has paralyzed the executive since February. It seeks to end Brexit controls on goods coming in from Britain.
Since May, the DUP has gone further, refusing even to allow the region’s assembly to function, a deadlock that could lead to new elections within months.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, key executive power-sharing decisions require cross-community support. The deal also guarantees that there can be no change in 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 British government agrees, saying that the delicate balance between communities in Northern Ireland has been disrupted and that the Good Friday Agreement has been undermined to such an extent that trade arrangements for the region agreed with Brussels, the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol , must be torn apart.
That was the basis of a bill introduced in Westminster in June by Secretary of State Liz Truss, the frontrunner to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, and backed by Rishi Sunak, rival to her Conservative party leader.
But some experts from Northern Ireland have said that London is twisting the truth.
“The UK government has adopted a one-sided analysis of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” Andrew McCormick, a former top Northern Ireland Brexit official, wrote in a new paper for the Irish think tank the Institute of International and European Affairs.
He said the government would set a “dangerous precedent for responding to a party’s refusal to participate in the institutions by making a concession in their favor”.
No union politician has supported the protocol, saying the arrangement, which kept Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods and imposed controls on their entry into the region, undermines its place in the UK.
However, the UK’s solution – to tear up parts of the protocol – runs counter to the views of the majority of lawmakers elected in the Stormont assembly, who see it as workable, albeit with some adjustments.
A quarter of a century after the trepidation and hope that the Good Friday Agreement represented, the deal remains the only workable solution when it comes to securing the concerns of both communities.
But politicians, former officials and academics say it could be updated, not least to recognize that Northern Ireland’s old binary political affiliations are changing.
The Alliance party, which does not join either community and more than doubled its seats in May to become the third largest political power, wants reforms to end the “ransom policy”. Sinn Féin had the 2017-22 executive collapse in a row over a failed energy plan.
“The logic of the Good Friday Agreement is still compelling,” said Rory Montgomery, a former senior Irish diplomat and member of the team that negotiated it.
“There are improvements that need to be made, but I’m not convinced that any of them would drastically change the situation. . . Unless and until there is a solution to the protocol problem, there will be no more decentralized institutions,” he added.
For Alan Whysall, a former senior Northern Ireland official who has worked on the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement is “shaky” and “must undergo an extensive process of renewal”.
Among the areas where “new life” could be injected into the deal, he sees policing, dealing with persistent threats from paramilitary groups, a low level of integrated education and overcoming divisions about how to deal with the past. The UK is pushing for controversial amnesty measures.
“The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the sole basis for politics. There is no plausible alternative framework that has broad support,” Whysall said in a recent report for the Constitutional Unit of University College London. “But the foundations of the agreement are now shaky.”
He said the anniversary of the agreement was the obvious opportunity for a reset. A poll last month by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies found that more than 81 percent of people in the region believed there should be “an independent assessment of the assembly and the executive to investigate how they could function better”.
That was supported by 74.4 percent of union members, 87.2 percent of nationalists and 85.5 percent of people who did not identify with either community.
However, neither Truss nor Sunak have suggested that a revision of the Good Friday Agreement is imminent. Lord David Frost, former Brexit minister, has called for a new essay to resolve the protocol dispute “so that Northern Ireland is firmly, sustainably and fully placed within the UK”.
But Brendan O’Leary, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the British government had to argue that the Good Friday Agreement was in jeopardy to argue that intentions to break the protocol are necessary.
“All the current difficulties stem from the UK’s decision to leave the EU and its subsequent decision to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market,” he said. “So British policy needs to be reviewed, not the Good Friday Agreement.”