This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, which ended over twenty-five years of conflict in Northern Ireland.
Whilst the Good Friday Agreement remains secure, its key principles of consent and self-determination are under increasing pressure from Brexit and the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) political deal with the UK Conservative government.
The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 has produced a remarkable degree of peace in Northern Ireland. According to Lost Lives, a book detailing conflict-related deaths, 436 people were killed between 1990 and 1994. In contrast, 36 people were killed by paramilitary or UK security force actions between 2002 and 2006 (McKittrick et al. 2007, p.1552).
Furthermore, the Belfast Agreement convinced the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to end its armed campaign in 2005, and its political-wing Sinn Féin to fully endorse power-sharing in Northern Ireland. On the unionist side, both the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP eventually accepted sharing power with Irish nationalists and cross-border institutions, which they previously rejected in 1974.
Ultimately, the Good Friday Agreement was about the principles of consent and self-determination. It stipulated that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be decided by the majority of people in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic voting separately, but concurrently to either keep the north within the UK or to bring about unification. In the meantime, the Belfast Agreement promised equality, respect for cultural divergence and a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland. It has delivered some of these promises. For example, those born in Northern Ireland can hold either an Irish or British passport or both.
In order to protect Catholics, who represent currently 45 percent of the population, from experiencing discrimination in cultural affairs, public employment, voting procedures or law and order as occurred under Unionist majority rule before 1969 (see Whyte 1983), the Agreement includes anti-discriminatory components. Elected members of the Northern Irish Assembly have to designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or other. This ensure that when contentious issues such as policing or flags are debated in legislation, a cross-community vote occurs. A majority of those designated Nationalist and Unionist must both accept certain legislation before it can be passed. The Good Friday Agreement has allowed Unionists and Irish Nationalists the freedom to decide their constitutional future and everyday affairs.
Despite the power-sharing government not operating since January 2017 following disagreements over an Irish Language Act, implementing conflict legacy mechanisms and a corrupt energy scheme, the Good Friday Agreement remains the foundation of peace and political progress. Alongside the significant decline in political violence, it has encouraged the DUP and Sinn Féin, sworn enemies before 1998, to share power between 2007 and 2017. It is also worth remembering that both parties still support the Belfast Agreement.
Whilst the Assembly can collapse, the Good Friday Agreement does not. Instead, there is direct rule from London with the assistance of Dublin. When direct rule returned between 2002 and 2007, the conflict did not recommence. Whilst not ideal, direct rule can provide the time needed for negotiations to restore power-sharing if talks are facilitated in the meantime by the British and Irish governments (Coakley 2008).
But there are three key challenges that Brexit presents for the founding principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
First, Northern Ireland voted to remain within the European Union (EU). 55.8 percent voted to remain compared to 44.2 percent who voted to leave. Northern Ireland’s exit from the EU could appear justified based on the overall UK result. However, the Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principles of Northern Irish consent and self-determination. If Northern Ireland, for instance, wanted to remain within the UK or to unify with the Republic in the future, it does not matter what the rest of the UK wants Northern Ireland to do. Brexit has contradicted this principle. Irish republicans and nationalists (and potentially unionists who voted remain) feel that their opinion is being ignored. This partly explains why Sinn Féin want special status for Northern Ireland within the EU.
The second potential problem is dissatisfaction with any border. An electoral map for Northern Ireland following the Assembly election in March 2017 and the UK parliament elections in June 2017 shows that the border constituencies are dominated by Sinn Féin. With protest signs and marches against a hard border or customs posts in many Sinn Féin constituencies near the border, it is clear that nationalists feel their consent has been overlooked.
A third difficulty that Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement is that the final terms of Brexit will have to go before the UK parliament. Sinn Féin is the only Irish nationalist party with any Westminster seats, but because they oppose British rule they have historically never taken their seats. The DUP is currently supporting the UK Conservative government. This situation means that the consent of the majority of Northern Irish people will potentially be ignored. Parliamentary arithmetic means that it does not matter whether Sinn Féin takes their seats or not because the Conservative government and the DUP in theory have the numbers to pass the final Brexit terms.
Nevertheless, the Good Friday Agreement has been resilient. There is no appetite to return to violence, with only a low percentage of the vote received by dissident loyalist and republican paramilitaries since 1998. The DUP and Sinn Féin also continue to support power-sharing and the principle of consent to decide Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Any disagreements over Brexit can hopefully be solved through democratic dialogue. The need to develop new trading relations with the EU and elsewhere may see a future Assembly bring nationalists and unionists closer together by working to secure the north’s economic interests. Yet potential cooperation over Brexit depends on observing the key principles from the Good Friday Agreement: self-determination and consent. Any attempt to bypass these principles could setback community relations for years to come.
Dr Thomas Leahy is a lecturer in British and Irish politics and contemporary history in the Politics and International Relations Department at Cardiff University. His research specialisms include the Northern Ireland conflict and intelligence war, Irish republicanism since 1969, Northern Irish and Irish politics since 1998, and dealing with the past on the island of Ireland.
This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Welsh Brexit blog nor Cardiff University.