Better possible with attitude change: Tonge at JHISS
by Aodhan FAGAN
25 July 2023
Professor Jonathan Tonge from the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool gave a talk at the John Hewitt International Summer School, at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh, on the topic of whether “better is possible” from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation, 25 years on.
Professor Tonge’s research covers the Northern Ireland peace process, devolution, political parties, and elections in both the UK and Ireland. He is co-author of The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? and The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power. He has a forthcoming book on the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.
Every seat was taken in the studio theatre and the talk was chaired by historian Myrtle Hill. Professor Tonge, in his opening remarks, expressed that he was “glad to be in Armagh” and that he was not another Englishman offering solutions: “You already have one of those — the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.” However, he did express from the outset that he was an “optimist” when looking at the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Tonge said that undoubtedly the 1998 peace accord has delivered. “The hugely improved security situation” in comparison to the decades of conflict that preceded that agreement, on its own made it a success: “There were 3,559 deaths in the 25 years prior to the Good Friday Agreement and 165 deaths in the 25 years since.”
While the popular legitimacy of 1998 referendums has always been retained, he said that only 7% of people across society believe the Northern Ireland Executive functions well as a government.
He noted that when the Northern Ireland Assembly functions, much legislation is passed, compared to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. However, there has been no advancement of “significant powers” since the devolution of policing and justice in 2010; Tonge said that Northern Ireland was now “the poor relation” among the devolved administrations.
Tonge acknowledged that in Northern Ireland it is “hard to agree on the present, never mind the past”. However, in various surveys people from different communities felt that they have not benefited from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Yet the prospect of restoring power sharing at Stormont is still very much the wish of most in society, according to surveys.
He pointed out that surveys also indicated that there has been “no leap to Irish unity”, and that so-called “constitutional agnostics” such as the Alliance Party are vital in regard to the constitutional question. In this sense, he felt that there is “all to play for” if there was a border poll.
Tonge said that integrated education is “not the panacea its proponents claim it to be”. Rather, he argued, it is segregation in communal spaces — such as housing — that curtails attitudinal change. He used the example of the city of Liverpool, where there is no constitutional question, per se, yet there are many faith-based schools, without communal segregation. The absence of the constitutional question is key, but specifically the non-communal segregation in Liverpool shows that if communities in Northern Ireland were not so segregated, there would be a more positive outlook in terms of integration and greater understating of different communal opinions and cultures, thus society would move in a peaceful direction.
Betraying his opening remark, Tonge provided some suggestions for the current impasse of the Northern Ireland government. One was the option of an external broker — someone outside of UK and Irish politics — like the role Senator George Mitchell served during the multi-party talks that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
In terms of reforms of the political intuitions, Tonge suggested that there could be a time veto on how long a non-functioning Executive and Assembly was allowed to not meet, as well as the prospect of MLAs not individually affiliating with a communal designation when they take their seats.
Yet Tonge said that a real solution is for “the public need to be won over” by politicians and see that everyone who lives in Northern Ireland can benefit from functioning political institutions.
Specifically, he stated that the growth between the UK and EU economies would ultimately move society forward. Those vital economic prospects can enable a better outlook.
In terms of social issues — such as women’s rights, child poverty, and the epidemic of suicide rates in Northern Ireland — any British government will be less focussed on addressing them in Northern Ireland, Tonge said. He acknowledged that Westminster has passed legislation for some social issues, for example access to abortion.
In his concluding remarks, from his data presentations it was evident that although throughout Northern Ireland’s political instability, the public had not “lost their faith” in power sharing, and the public’s disillusionment “lies in the outworking of the institutions”:
“Better is ‘possible’ but progress will be glacial until there is genuine acceptance of the equal legitimacy of identities and constitutional aspirations plus movement from (impossible to resolve) arguments about the past.”