Queen's Policy Engagement

Re-imagining the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 2.0: Cultivating an emergent future we have not yet dared to imagine

It is time perhaps to wholeheartedly embrace the essential and symbiotic role of each of all three strands of the Belfast Agreement as the DNA of a positive peace says Dr Peter Doran.

Re-imagining the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 2.0: Cultivating an emergent future we have not yet dared to imagine

“In most description and analysis, culture and society are expressed in a habitual past tense. The strongest barrier to the recognition of human cultural activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products…Institutions, formations, and experiences, so that now, as in that produced past, only the fixed explicit forms exist, and living presence is always, by definition, receding.”

(Raymond Williams, 1977)


The mayhem of Brexit has dramatized the genius and continuing promise of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement when viewed as a dynamic, adaptive and enabling framework for addressing the (geo)politics of Northern Ireland. After twenty years of operating the Agreement’s three strands on a somewhat à la carte basis, it is time perhaps to wholeheartedly embrace the essential  and symbiotic role of each of all three strands as the DNA of a positive peace.

Both Brexit and the faltering history of the ‘internal’ or strand one arrangements for the Executive and Assembly underline two insights about the nature of the political in Northern Ireland. The first is this: far from being a liminal or marginal place constantly subject to the fiat of London, Dublin or Brussels decision-makers, this place has emerged as a fulcrum of actual and potential constitutional innovation, which began with the Agreement and was gifted by the imaginative legacy of Europe’s heroic post-conflict settlement in the wake of the second world war. We have had a flavour of the Agreement’s capacity to empower and inject a new sense of agency in Irish politics with the pre-negotiations between the United Kingdom Government and the EU Council of Ministers in December.

This is not insignificant for the way in which our political class in Northern Ireland can come to understand their own complex sense of agency. Secondly, a singular feature of the operation of the Agreement has been the relative and costly negligence of the second and third strands of the Agreement signalled by a problematic relapse into a corrosive binary contest between two ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson), battling it out on every domestic front on the old ‘narrow ground’. The genius of the Agreement was and remains its regard for the deep spatial and historical entanglements that are constitutive of our identities, politics and opportunities to navigate our way beyond enmity. Only when both our political class and civil society fully embrace the three stranded DNA of the Agreement is a fulsome sense of agency and mutual determination apparent.

And, poignantly, insofar as we are prepared to acknowledge that the three strands are part of an imaginative legacy gifted to us in the name of Europe’s fallen and the coming generations after WWll – that legacy is also our own. The three strands are our European DNA woven into the body politique.

With a sense of historical symmetry, we might yet come to appreciate that Brexit and its potential fall-out defy enclosure or any reductionist attempt to work them through within the imaginative constraints of the strand one political theatre. If two ‘conceptions of sovereignty’ (Hayward 2017) lie at the heart of the Brexit debate – insofar as Northern Ireland is concerned – these can only be accommodated across all three registers of the Agreement. Of particular importance will be the role of the over-arching and geopolitical architecture of the British-Irish Council.


Control is over-rated: let us embrace our story as one of complex emergence

Even the Tory Party authors of the Brexit Referendum calamity did not foresee all the consequences. The unleashing of Brexit’s implosive binary logic has taken most by surprise (including David Davis by all accounts) and offered a salutary lesson about the limits of ‘prediction’ and ‘control’ of the narrative in complex political environments.

In defiance of many of our inherited assumptions, cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space. As the pioneer of learning organisations, Peter Senge, has observed: there is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality. Moreover, well-intentioned interventions can call forth responses (“compensating feedback”) from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention. This is especially true when we attempt to intervene at a point or scale in the system where leverage is weak. Systems thinking shows that small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements, if they are performed in the right place.

Senge advises that the first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space. For political parties (and civil society) in Northern Ireland perhaps the lesson is that interventions must also take account of the whole system of relationships and entanglements across all three strands of the Agreement. The words ‘whole’ and ‘health’ come from the same Old English root, hal. To restore the health of the Agreement, its processes and institutions, will entail seeing all the relationships as an integral system where inter-relationships, emergence and cultivating dispositions are as important, if not more important, than the static institutions or outcomes. Improvisation and a politics of patience take the place of a politics of over-determination and pre-emption.


Complexity: The politics of Anglo-Irish relations and the imaginative legacy of the European institutions demand local leadership and foresight less driven by the hubris of control and over-determination and more acquainted with adjusting to the emergent qualities and opportunities of a complex adaptive system.

A politics of emergence and patience is compatible with a vision of reconciliation based on commitment to cultivating the conditions for ‘narrative hospitality’ (Richard Kearney, Paul Ricoeur, Michael D Higgins) and authentic co-authorship of an emergent future. Scharmer and Kaufer (2013) describe the need to hold the space for transforming the fields of conversation from debate to dialogue and collective creativity. Transforming the quality of conversation in a system means transforming the quality of relationship and thought – and it is this transformed quality that travels with us into the emerging future.

With a renewed focus on disposition and a ‘structure of feeling’ (Raymond Williams) the emergent future comes to be regarded more as a garden to be co-cultivated rather than a preparation for ‘High Noon’: a sense that future preferences will be fought over (or voted on) in much the same terms and dispositions as they exist today. Rather we embrace complexity in a spirit of improvisation and radical inclusion, committed to an emergent future that we have not yet dared to imagine.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Dr Peter Doran
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Dr. Peter Doran is a Lecturer in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, contributing to teaching on the environment, human rights, contemporary issues in property law and the law of the commons. His recent research focused on wellbeing policy and outcomes in the Northern Ireland Programme for Government.

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