Second thoughts on the Good Friday Agreement @ImagineBelfast
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
14 March 2018
Twenty years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), there is now debate and scepticism over whether the landmark political agreement is still relevant to Northern Ireland. As part of the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics, there was a seminar titled, “The Good Friday Agreement: Is it still fit for purpose?”, which focused on the doubts and criticisms people have of the legislation that officially ended the Troubles. The talk took place at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast.
The first to speak was Robin Wilson, an author, researcher and policy analyst. He presented the question of why there is currently peace in Northern Ireland but no reconciliation. Wilson identified five different issues from this observation, stating that the common theme was how “the agreement actually incentivised polarising behaviour rather than incentivising reconciliation”. The first issue he addressed was the border poll, which he described satirically (with reference to the 2016 referendum on the European Union): “If you really wanted to stir things up here, what you would do would be to set up a referendum with a black or white, British/Irish outcome, at a 50% plus one decision principle; that would be the surest way to really polarise things.” Wilson contrasted this with the fact that many people in Northern Ireland identify with both communities: “The whole border poll construction doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The second issue was the electoral system, which is currently the Single Transferable Vote system (STV). The problem with STV, Wilson explained, is that due to the fact that you only need a small proportion of the vote to gain a quota, it ultimately leads to politicians having an incentive to rally for their “core sectarian vote”. This puts moderates, who want to appeal to both sides, at a disadvantage.
Wilson then specified the communal designation system as the third problem. He stated that this was obvious, as it had “the effect of encouraging mindsets of sectarianism” and prevented discussions on other economic and social topics.
The fourth problem was on how the Executive is shaped. The idea of a coalition government was seen as unfeasible by previous negotiators in the 1970s, but the rushed nature of the GFA talks meant there was only one night addressing devolution and that was what ultimately came about. Wilson said the problem that stems from this is that there is no collective responsibility. He quoted the former secretary to the Executive: “You could turf the scoundrels out in an assembly election and the same bunch of scoundrels came back again.”
The last problem was how the Executive works — specifically that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are elected on a separate basis as opposed to being voted in together. Wilson stated that the DUP were responsible for the removal of “the one conciliatory aspect” of the GFA. Wilson was also critical of the then Labour government for going along with this.
In conclusion, Wilson stated: “A lot of hope and aspiration from 1998 many people had is being replaced by disillusionment. But at the same time … these are things that can be fixed… If the political will is there these are not insuperable problems… They’re actually quite easy to see what the political solutions are.”
The next short talk was given by Green Party Councillor, Rachel Woods, standing in for Clare Bailey. Woods also addressed some of the shortcomings of the GFA, in particular that it “failed on missing elements which were designed to safeguard and promote the respect of human rights as well as the issue of transnational justice”. She went on to say that due to the nature of the GFA, the main political parties simply compete for power which fosters a sectarian “us versus them mentality”. As a result, problems faced by ordinary people are then ignored.
Woods said, “The perpetuation of division, I would argue, is built into the Good Friday Agreement.” She believes it has undermined any progress on a range of issues such as parades, historical abuse, integrated education, and so on. Moreover, she argued, sectarianism is still a significant concern within Northern Ireland that needed tackling, and more action was required in helping victims of abuse, both historical and current, in whatever setting it may have occurred.
Woods reiterated that there are still a number of social issues (unemployment, mental health, homelessness, etc.) that are not being dealt with due to the political deadlock at Stormont. It has led to the creation of “a hierarchy of rights, where the Irish Language Act is being pitted against cuts to the NHS, which is deeply worrying and continues the politicisation of culture as well as skewing the reality of government’s role”.
Woods stated that the features that were active during the signing of the GFA, mainly “the involvement of third-party actors and the involvement of civil society”, are now gone. Consequently, the main parties are narrowly focused on their own political goals — a border poll and reunification for Sinn Fein and a hard Brexit for the DUP.
She recalled that in 2006 after the St Andrews Agreement, “the two states took the position that if the restoration of institutions was deferred, governance would be taken forward by the new British-Irish partnership agreements under the joint stewardship of the two governments.”
She concluded, “The UK parliament could take the initiative on a number of rights-based obligations”, such as legislation for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, more funding for legacy inquests, and other legislation regarding rights.
Finally, Jamie Pow, deputy editor of Northern Slant, talked about the possibility of the GFA being reformed or changed in some way so it operates better. Firstly, Pow referenced several members of the UK parliament who have called into question the GFA or outright say it has failed. He also pointed out that this has led to claims that these comments are related to Brexit and that “there’s a conflation or an exploitation of the Good Friday Agreement … in order to upset some of the arguments given in relation to the Irish border”.
He went on to present an argument for reforming the Belfast Agreement, starting with the observation that over the last decade people have become increasingly dissatisfied with MLAs, referencing a poll from 2014. A more up-to-date poll highlighted that roughly 4 out of 5 people think inter-party dialogue is pointless and support an option that involves the suspension of the institutions. Pow said that this was concerning, but understandable given the frustration and indifference that has developed in recent years.
In regards to what could be reformed, Pow proposed changing the electoral system: “There are advocates who would suggest a majoritarian electoral system or pluralistic first-past-the-post systems.” Though he added that there is “a sharp community-based divide in terms of what reform of the electoral system means”, as Unionists and Nationalists disagree on what reforms to the voting system should be implemented.
He also brought up the notion of moving to a voluntary coalition: “Even within government as it had existed before the recent collapse, we did move towards that Government-Opposition dynamic, albeit for a very short space of time.” Pow stated that it may not be a matter of the rules of the GFA changing, but rather to “see how that dynamic could have developed on its own over time”.
Pow touched on several of the points Wilson had previously described (MLA communal designations, etc.) and also similarly reported how a growing number of people in Northern Ireland identify as neither Nationalist nor Unionist.
He added, “There’s a tension between sticking rigidly to this consociational logic that is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement versus relaxing it a bit”. Finding a middle ground between these two positions was something that needs to be explored so as “to improve the quality of democracy without throwing the whole thing away completely”.
Summarising, Pow stated that “rather than set out a menu of things that should be reformed”, there should be more involvement from citizens themselves. This could potentially be in the form of a constitutional convention with a randomly nominated representation of citizens, with the goal of creating reforms.