Good Friday Agreement at 20: worth celebrating?
Jonathan Powell, chief government negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007 and one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, reflects on how the agreement has served Northern Ireland over the past 20 years.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has, until recently, been universally acclaimed both domestically and internationally as a model for peace-making throughout its twenty year history. In recent months however it has come under attack with some British politicians claiming it has run its course. Are they right?
It depends a bit on what was expected. Peace agreements, not just in Northern Ireland but around the world, are not like fairy stories: people don’t get to live happily ever after just because an agreement was signed. In Northern Ireland, the GFA has not totally ended politically inspired violence. It has not brought about complete political stability. And it has not ended sectarianism. Indeed there are many more peace walls in Belfast now than when the agreement was first signed. But it did end the Troubles and there is no prospect of going back to them again. To that extent, the GFA has served Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom well.
The agreement is of course not perfect. The forced coalition of opposing political parties imposed by the GFA is a problem. It makes it impossible to ‘throw the rascals out’ and hold the Executive to account. That is an inevitable result of the need for power sharing in the province after nearly 80 years of one party rule. As David Trimble put it in his excellent Nobel Prize speech, Northern Ireland had become a ‘cold house’ for Catholics under Protestant rule. And as long as politics remains sectarian rather than ideologically driven, then power-sharing will in all probability have to continue. Majoritarianism cannot work properly if a minority is permanently excluded from power.
In any case, whatever the critics say, the British government is not about to walk away from the Good Friday Agreement. It is a legally binding treaty registered at the UN and Theresa May asserted its paramountcy in her Article 50 letter last year. All governments remain committed to it to the letter. Nonetheless its substance is under threat.
The first threat is internal – the inability of Northern Ireland’s political parties to restore the power sharing Executive. The longer the hiatus goes on, the harder it will be to get it back and the worse the political tension will be. Paradoxically the new generation of politicians, who were not themselves combatants in the Troubles, seem to find it harder to reach compromises than Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, who were themselves both deeply involved. Partly this may be because the issues at stake are now less life and death and partly because the new leaders do not have the same command of their parties that their predecessors had. And the fact that the British government depends for its continued existence on the support of 10 DUP MPs in Westminster makes finding an agreement even harder. Since at least 1990, the British government has regarded itself as neutral and willing to accept whatever the two sides in Northern Ireland could agree to. That is no longer the case.
The domestic political crisis is therefore serious but it is made even more dramatic by the external threat superimposed on it by Brexit. This is not a new problem. John Major and Tony Blair campaigned against Brexit during the Referendum pointing out the dangers a hard border posed for the agreement. The GFA was in essence an agreement to disagree. Unionists continued to want to remain in the United Kingdom and Nationalists and Republicans continued to want to be part of a united Ireland. The conflict wasn’t resolved but both sides agreed to pursue their aims peacefully. The issue of identity was defused by the open border. People in Northern Ireland could feel Irish or British or both without hindrance. The threat Brexit poses is not returning us to the Troubles but reopening the question of identity and roiling Northern Ireland politics just as we are trying to reach compromises on restoring the Executive.
The British government has guaranteed that it will not allow a hard border to be established as a result of Brexit. But two years after beginning the Brexit process it still cannot explain convincingly how this can be achieved if the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union. If we have different customs policies and different regulatory regimes in Ireland, North and South, there will have to be a hard border. There is no magic technological solution nor will a Free Trade Agreement, however deep, allow us to avoid one. The government’s hope seems to be that we will muddle through somehow. But they face a crunch in October when they have to sign a legally binding divorce agreement with the EU. Then they will face a choice between creating a hard border or remaining in at least a customs union with the EU.
Of course what unites the handful of British politicians attacking the GFA is not a long history of interest in Northern Ireland but a determination to achieve a hard Brexit. They see the conundrum of the Irish border as standing in the way of what they desperately want to secure. It is exactly because they can see their way blocked by the insoluble issue of a hard border that they are arguing to throw the GFA overboard. Luckily they will not succeed.
The Good Friday Agreement will survive for another twenty years as it has for the last twenty years. And we are right to celebrate the peace it has brought Northern Ireland in that time and will, I hope, continue to do in the future.