Northern Ireland 26th February 2019

NI Open Government Network Blog – Where is my Good Friday Agreement?

by Connor McLean

Written By Colm Burns

I voted for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in May 1998 because I felt it was the right thing to do. I was 20 and not politically active, and hadn’t actually read the Agreement but I did grow up in North Belfast beside Girdwood Army Barracks. I remember the bombs and shooting and the killings, I remember losing family members. I remember the ceasefire, I remember the hope, I even remember Bono showing up.

If the referendum was held tomorrow, I would vote yes again because the alternative isn’t an option for me. Yet this isn’t the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ I was promised or voted for.

Where is my Bill of Rights?

Where is my Civil Forum?

Where is my ‘Time for change’?

In her book, ‘The Good Friday Agreement’ Siobhán Fenton concluded that:

“…while the spirit of compromise that was demonstrated by both sides on 10 April 1998 feels distant and unlikely to be replicated in the present day…the Agreement is likely to endure as the foundational text for Northern Ireland, imperfect as it is, in the absence of credible alternatives.”

I agree that there aren’t any “politically” credible alternatives, but what about a citizens’ alternative?

We have used “conventional politics” in the hope for change. When politicians and governments fail, people blame the other parties but do not examine the role they played.

We need to examine what has changed in the last 20 years. In a Sky News poll 51% think we are less divided now, 24% feel we are more divided and 23% never expect to see a power-sharing government restored.

The poll also found 76% in favour of same-sex marriage, 54% supporting unrestricted access to abortion for women up to 12 weeks pregnant, and 69% backing integrated education. Although a poll is a snapshot and not a forecast we see that people want change, but the main parties DUP, SF, UUP and SDLP still receive 81% of the votes cast even though they seem to be out of step with the public.

There is a movement to make Parliament elections more representative by using a Single Transferable Vote system, but is there an argument that in Northern Ireland it has made elections more sectarian since the GFA?

Our communities aren’t changing, the majority of the most deprived area are in urban areas, notably Belfast North, Belfast West and Foyle. Strabane is also a deprivation ‘hot spot’. At the same time, the least deprived areas are typically found in the suburbs of Greater Belfast and surrounding areas. There is evidence of an overall East/West divide, with higher levels of deprivation concentrated in the West, and areas of least deprivation more likely to be in the East. These statistics haven’t changed too much over the last 20 years and strategy after strategy from the Executive has had very little impact.

Evidence shows that long-term and effective change only happens if the government and citizens are pushing in the same direction. Political action without citizen engagement will not affect change. We have seen this time and time again, So, it’s time to ask ‘What do we do if politics is the problem?’

I am guilty for the failings of the GFA, because to be honest I haven’t played my part. I didn’t read the Agreement until I needed to do so for a job I was working in. But I have come to recognise its limitations. And I think it is time for it to be reviewed.

The Declaration of Support outlines the aspirations for the GFA:

  1. We, the participants in the multi-party negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.
  1. The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.
  1. We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.
  1. We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.
  1. We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement. It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements – an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland – are interlocking and interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and the North/South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other.
  1. Accordingly, in a spirit of concord, we strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval.

Link to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement

Can we really say that we have met these aspirations?

In a recent British Council poll, over 1,000 young people aged 18-30 across the island of Ireland were questioned about their attitudes and hopes for the future. The results revealed low trust levels in government on both sides of the border, while young people in Northern Ireland were less optimistic about their own future.

In Northern Ireland, over a third (36%) had absolutely no trust in the Stormont Assembly, with just 2% having complete trust. This compares to a fifth (21%) of those questioned in the Irish Republic having no trust in Dail Eireann, with only 1% having complete trust.

While reading the declaration of support in the Agreement the striking takeaway is how much trust is expected from the parties. But do the political parties have the ability to trust each other?

Brexit has muddied the water and increased the tension. Whilst the Referendum on the GFA was meant to bring “the people” together, the Brexit Referendum was an attempt to ‘take back control’, Remainers claim Brexit will destroy the GFA. Leavers say it will enhance democracy and enable a strong UK.

Many prominent Brexiteers are happy to throw the Good Friday Agreement under the bus in the interest of political expediency. Some of them didn’t like the Agreement in the first place. But what about the people who voted ‘yes’? And what about those who didn’t have the opportunity to vote in the 1998 Referendum? What do they think?

Before its inception the DUP were against it. Other prominent voices like Ruth Dudley Edwards argue that:

“Realists believe the deal has served its purpose and run its course, leaving behind the unintended consequence of enshrining sectarianism in the political process.”

MEP Daniel Hannan wrote, in a Telegraph article, that the Agreement was “often spoken about in quasi-religious terms … but its flaws have become clearer over time”.

Labour MP Kate Hoey told the Huffington Post that she thought the Agreement needed “a cold, rational look”, and that the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive it mandated was “not sustainable in the long term”.

On the other side, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson has said it is essential the Good Friday Agreement is protected in the face of the Tory Brexit agenda. Stephen Farry MLA has argued that the Backstop protects the Good Friday Agreement.

Claire Hanna MLA has said that:

“Despite the wrecking ball of Brexit and the quagmire of current Northern politics, we must remember the Good Friday Agreement is not an ornament to be gazed upon and nor is it a relic, rather it can actually be a toolkit for protecting our shared interests and future.”  

But what do citizens think?

In a previous blog, Untapped Potential I suggested that a Constitutional Convention involving citizens and political representatives (to focus on reviewing strand one of the Good Friday Agreement) may be the way forward. We can learn from Ireland, Canada, Iceland and Scotland, where this method has been tried, and design something that meets our local needs.

Giving citizens a formal role in decision-making will provide legitimacy. When people are presented with facts and have an opportunity to question and explore an issue most often they reach an informed opinion and perhaps a new way forward.

With so much uncertainty facing us why not take the risk?