Your referendum: support for GFA endures
by Maria HASSAN
22 May 2023
On the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Linen Hall Library hosted “Your Referendum”. The last of its Origins and Legacies series, the event reflected on the agreement and its referendum then and now, before giving the audience a chance to have their say with a series of live polls. Jon Tonge (professor of British and Irish politics, University of Liverpool) and Suzanne Breen (political editor, Belfast Telegraph) led the conversation.
Tonge began by transporting the audience back to May 1998, asking: Why did people vote the way they did?
Data from the 1998 Northern Ireland Referendum and Election Study and a series of Irish Times polls were used to gauge the public mood in the lead-up to the vote.
In Northern Ireland, the result of the 1998 referendum was a 71% “yes” vote, with an 81% voter turnout.
Tonge said that before reaching such a majority, “There were a number of hurdles to cross within the parties that tend to be overlooked.”
For example, the Ulster Unionist Party executive voted 55–23 in favour, but party leader David Trimble did not have a majority amongst his own MPs in Westminster.
Exploring voting differences across the traditional binary divide, Tonge noted that there was a “more emphatic ‘yes’ vote on the Catholic side”, with 99% voting in favour.
Whilst it was only necessary to win an overall majority, Tonge said that in terms of legitimacy, it was “crucial” to secure a majority on the Protestant side.
He identified that for Protestant “no” voters, power sharing and the North–South bodies were key issues. There were also doubts that the deal would break political deadlock, bring economic prosperity, or lead to peace, saying this was “one of the few things that republican and unionist ‘no’ voters might have agreed on”.
On the “yes” side, he said, “It was pretty brave backing the deal even though you do not think it is going to lead to a lasting peace.”
As an overwhelming majority of Catholics were in support of the agreement, a distinction was made between the attitudes of nationalists and republicans. On the republican side, Tonge identified that there was “resistance to the idea of decommissioning before entering government”. The removal of Ireland’s constitutional claim to Northern Ireland was also of “symbolic importance”, despite the Republic never attempting to exercise it.
Tonge identified that politicians John Hume and David Trimble played a “crucial” role, “carrying their sides” and securing public trust.
Voter confidence in Gerry Adams was a “fairly emphatic zero per cent” with a “reciprocal rejection” of Ian Paisley on the republican side. Tonge said: “These figures are striking in what they convey about who was trusted to deliver the Good Friday Agreement.”
Evaluating public sentiment around who benefitted most from the agreement, with reference to the 1998 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, Tonge posited: “This is where the agreement has hit trouble.”
Amongst Catholics, 54% of respondents agreed that everyone benefitted equally. Tonge highlighted that this sentiment “prevailed less amongst Protestants”.
Tonge also reflected on the historic divisions within unionism present in the first post-agreement Assembly election results:
“You could see that there were going to be difficulties ahead. Anti-agreement unionists were almost as numerical as the pro-agreement unionists.”
Tonge concluded: “It was obvious that the deal might not live happily ever after, but we are here celebrating it 25 years on, which shows its capacity to endure and survive.”
Suzanne Breen offered a contemporary perspective on the agreement, using statistics from a series of recent polls carried out by Lucid Talk.
A poll carried out just before the agreement’s 25th anniversary asked: How would you vote if there was a referendum tomorrow?
64% of people voted “yes”, 7 percentage points less than in 1998.
Breen identified: “A majority of unionist voters now say that they would vote against the Good Friday Agreement”, compared to a 95% “yes” vote among nationalists:
“What we find is that growing unionist antipathy for the agreement actually reinforces nationalist affection for it.”
Echoing Tonge’s earlier point, Breen said: “Securing a majority in both communities was always regarded by both London and Dublin as essential. It was always a much harder sell on the unionist side of the house.”
Looking away from party political differences, Breen noted that there was also a significant gender division, with three-quarters of women surveyed in 2023 voting “yes”, compared to just over half of men.
Opposition to the agreement also increased with age: 59% of over-65s said that they would vote “yes”, compared to 64% of 18–24-year-olds.
Breen urged the audience to view these differences in the context of demographic trends, highlighting that there are more nationalist and other voters amongst the younger population.
She suggested that the issues of prisoner release and decommissioning that once drove unionist opposition have now largely been resolved.
In the present day, she said, “Unionist disillusionment is tied up with demographics and electoral results. The unionist majority in Stormont has gone; they no longer find it the comfortable place that it once was.”
Overall, nationalist support for the agreement was and has remained high.
However, Breen also recognised the suffering of working-class Catholics at the hands of the IRA in the period leading up to decommissioning and a sense of republican dissatisfaction with the compromises made. She quoted an interview with Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner, who said:
“Republicans were present at the negotiations, but republicanism was not. A united Ireland was not on the agenda.”
BoyleSports increased the likelihood of a border poll within the next decade to 50–50. Breen said that despite these odds, “Chances of a border poll being won remain unlikely.” She added: “Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness did not say that the agreement would bring about a united Ireland, but that it would be the start of the process.”
Breen placed concerns for the strength of the Union in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol at the heart of unionism’s growing opposition to the agreement:
“[The agreement] was employed as a reason to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland; it was not successfully used to stop an Irish sea border.”
Breen referenced another Lucid Talk poll, which found that two-thirds of respondents thought the Northern Ireland Assembly rules should be changed to stop one party from having a veto on the institutions functioning.
Breen highlighted that the agreement has been about “managing division and not ending it”.
She said: “It is not about the technicalities of the deal; it is that the agreement is seen as a symbolic turning point for Northern Ireland.”
After the discussion, it was time for the audience to have their say on the key issues discussed.
Project co-ordinator Melissa Baird said, “If you have not voted enough in the last week [Northern Ireland local government elections], you are about to.”
The first question asked: In the 1998 referendum, did you support, or would you have supported the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement?
80% of the audience responded “yes”.
The second question asked: If a referendum on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was held tomorrow would you vote to support it?
79% of the audience voted in agreement.
The final question asked: Should the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland call a border poll within the next five years?
58% of the audience said yes.
Breen expressed her desire to cover a border before her journalistic career ends. Tonge joked that he would also be in favour of a border poll “if only for the lucrative media work”.