The GFA, Brexit and the future
The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is almost upon us.
April 10 will mark two decades since the historic document (or, in fact, two documents) was signed. Northern Ireland has been through an unbelievable amount since.
So much has changed, some things appear to have stayed almost the same but - despite the tumult comprised of local politics, tectonic social change and our unreliable economic developments and stagnations - the GFA has never been under any serious threat. Until, perhaps, now.
That threat, real or apparent, does not come from within: it lies at the feet of Brexit.
The Agreement is, or might be or is perceived to be, a potential obstacle to the Hard Brexit now pursued by some voluble figures at the forefront of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, said that mandatory coalition is “not sustainable” and that “there is a need for a cold, rational look” at the GFA itself.
Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said the Good Friday Agreement has “failed”. Owen Paterson, Conservative MP for North Shropshire, said the agreement has “outlived its use”.
All these comments have come in the past month – although earlier this week Ms Hoey denied that she Mr Hannan or Mr Paterson had said the GFA should be “ditched”.
Is the GFA really under pressure from Brexit? And what does this really mean?
Scope spoke with Geoff Nuttall, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at NICVA, about the organisation’s views on the importance of the GFA to Northern Ireland today. He said the agreement provides a major underpinning of relationships not just within and around NI and “therefore to have it overturned would be a major upheaval and not something we would want to see.”
However, things are not as straightforward as that, because the Good Friday Agreement deals with many things.
It established local political structures - the Assembly, mandatory coalition, Petitions of Concern, and so on - and also the mechanisms by which NI and the Republic of Ireland should engage (such as the North/South Ministerial Council), and also Westminster and the Dail (replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement).
Then there were resolutions on various wider issues: the principle of consent, establishment of certain rights, reform of the police and security arrangements, the release of prisoners, and a commitment from all participants to renounce violence and pursue democratic means.
The effect on NI has been immense. Branding it a failure is wild.
That does not mean its constituent parts are not open to question.
Mr Nuttall said: “We have had the collapse of the Assembly and seen the impact of not having a functioning government and I don’t think the answer, in trying to get more stability, is to abandon the basis upon which that government was established. That doesn’t seem to be helpful.
“What do people mean when they say the GFA should be abandoned – do they mean we should dismantle all the different arrangements? All the North-South arrangements? All the East-West ones?
“Evaluating new way of these institutions working is not necessarily the same as abandoning them.
“The difficulty is when statements are made quite generally about the GFA, it is not always clear what is meant. The Agreement was essentially there to provide mechanisms to work through all the issues it addresses.
The observations of Mr Hannan and Mr Paterson are, at best, clumsy. However, Ms Hoey, in saying that mandatory coalition is not sustainable, does have a point: the forced Executives at Stormont are not an ideal form of government and Northern Ireland should aspire to something better.
That does not mean it has not been useful in the past – plainly, it was – or, more importantly, that it no longer has a role to play now. The current political impasse shows the instability that remains in NI politics.
Nevertheless, some aspects of the agreement are ripe for change; no-one seems to be happy about Petitions of Concern, everyone would like to see reform.
Different individuals, and different political parties, might have significantly varying ideas of what that reform might look like – but nonetheless, the appetite for change is there.
Furthermore, amendments to the agreement have already taken place. The Assembly, and its various workings, is perhaps the centrepiece of the GFA, and it stipulated that a 108-member legislature should govern NI. That was the case until recently, when the number of MLAs was reduced by one in every constituency, down to a total of 90.
Mr Nuttall said: “Throughout the life of the GFA we have had periods of suspension of the Assembly, and the conclusion wasn’t drawn then that the GFA had failed – it was that the political process had stalled.
“We are in a position now where there are problems and challenges. The GFA created mechanisms to deal with these situations and it does not mean that if the process stalls the agreement is fundamentally at fault.
“It is speculation to try and interpret the motivations of people making comments now about the agreement. However, the timing of those comments is coincidental with discussions on Brexit. My sense is that there is a move amongst some to push for hard Brexit and that the agreement is perceived as a barrier to that, in some way.”
However, the story of Northern Ireland since 1998 is not a straightforward one. There has been progress and there has been stagnation.
“Certain aspirations in the agreement, regarding rights, now seem to be under threat. All those things remain highly relevant, it doesn’t feel like we need to move on to something else.
“If anything, these issues are still there and arguably even more important – particularly North/South and East/West.
“We have cooperation on things like energy and there is complete uncertainty about the future of our all-island energy market, in terms of Brexit. There is also a lack of clarity on how the rights of citizens will play out. All the mechanisms of the GFA and all its strands are crucial rather than no longer relevant.”
The current balance of power the Commons provides no clear pathway for the Prime Minister to pursue Brexit in any decisive fashion. She needs to keep various cohorts happy, including those who want to cut as many ties as possible with the EU, including membership of the single market and the customs union.
Membership of the single market and customs union are tied up with the fate of the North/South border and do not really have anything to do with the GFA, per se.
However, in the crazy flame war representing a debate as senior UK politicians try to achieve direction on Brexit, do not rule out collateral damage.
The unravelling of the GFA is less likely than an attack on some or all of it in principle or symbolic terms; it would be unwise to dismiss this, however.
A cold, rational look at the Agreement does indeed reveal that some parts of it are, or should be, up for debate (though perhaps not in the ways Ms Hoey was implying).
However, the principles – a shared future, peace, mutual respect – are things Northern Ireland cannot afford to throw away, even if they bear little resemblance to the current political disaster at Stormont.
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