On May 22nd, 1998, a referendum was held on a seemingly simple question: “Do you support the agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?” The vast majority of the Northern Irish voted yes and, in doing so, voted to end decades of violence, establish a new, devolved system of government, and allow Northern Ireland to dictate its own future — to support the Good Friday Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement was a landmark decision in the Northern Irish Peace Process, establishing three “Strands” or channels for communication and cooperation: peace-sharing institutions at the national level, cross-border institutions with Ireland, and institutional linkages between Ireland and the U.K. Since its passing, the Agreement has been heralded as a hallmark for peace-making in ethnic conflicts. Preceding the Agreement’s 25th anniversary, this spirit has been reinvigorated, most notably by the United States under President Joe Biden. Within Northern Ireland, however, the legacy of the Agreement is more mixed.
The Agreement is based on consociationalism: a system of democratic power-sharing in which proportionality among ethnic parties is emphasized. Under such systems, however, ethnic divisions are upheld and institutionalized. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are required to identify themselves as “Nationalist”, “Unionist”, or “other.” Decisions are to be made by weighted majority or parallel consent, meaning a proposal must be supported by the majority of the MLAs as well as a majority of designated Nationalists and Unionists. Additionally, while power-sharing systems are intended to empower moderates, they have actually been found to reward extreme perspectives. In Northern Ireland, support for the centrist block formed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party was quickly overwhelmed by support for the more extreme Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party. This is because Northern Irish politics form a zero-sum game in which a win by one group is perceived as a devastating loss for the other, leading to immense dysfunction. As the Agreement requires the role of First Minister to be a joint position, it has become common for one First Minister to resign in order to force the resignation of the other. In 2017, the government was dissolved after Marin McGuiness resigned as the Nationalist First Minister to protest the conduct and force the resignation of Arlene Foster, the Unionist First Minister. The government was not reformed until 2020. Altogether, the Good Friday Institutions have been in a state of dysfunction 40% of the time since their creation in 1998. By maintaining divides and group rivalries, yet requiring cooperation to function, consociationalism has made peace precarious.
Brexit, particularly the resulting Northern Ireland Protocol, has aggravated an already tumultuous situation. The Protocol came into effect in 2021 in order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. According to the Protocol, Northern Ireland is allowed to remain in the EU’s customs union and single market. This means goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain are subject to customs checks and EU standards. While supporters of the Protocol argue that it is a necessary compromise to ensure stability in Northern Ireland, it has been a source of controversy for unionists, who argue that a border in the Irish Sea undermines Northern Ireland’s British identity. This has posed significant political and social ramifications in the country.
Politically, Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol weaken two of the three principles on which the agreement is based: cooperation between Ireland and the U.K. and a power-sharing government. Since leaving the European Union, conservative leadership in the U.K. has increasingly acted unilaterally regarding Northern Ireland. Not only does this threaten the functioning of Strand Three (Irish-British cooperation), but it poses a dilemma for Ireland’s foreign relations going forward: to either lobby the U.K. in an attempt to coerce a more collaborative attitude or follow the U.K.’s example and begin making unilateral decisions of their own. A similar resistance to collaboration has been seen on a national level. The use of the veto by the MLAs has increased and the government was most recently dissolved (two months after it had been formed) in direct protest of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Furthermore, because the Agreement’s three strands are highly interdependent, the weakening of one threatens the integrity of the entire system.
The Agreement is an institution-based document. It does not include any plan to resolve social tensions, leaving them instead to silently simmer. Due to the Northern Ireland Protocol, these tensions have returned to the surface. Cross-community distrust, while always present at some level, has increased in recent years. Events and symbols that may have otherwise been viewed as neutral, such as a parade or flag, are perceived as threats by the other side. For example, in 2014, protests broke out almost immediately when the Belfast city council voted to only fly the Unionist flag on certain days. This distrust in each other has also resulted in distrust in institutions, as people perceive them to be more favorable to the other group than their own. A pinnacle of this distrust was the Loyalist Communities Council’s denouncement of the Agreement in March 2021.
March 2021 also saw an explosion of violence throughout the country. Unionists and nationalists targeted both the police and each other, hurling bricks and bombing cars. While the Agreement decommissioned the old paramilitary groups, new ones have since risen in their place. These groups use cross-community distrust to recruit new members, offering protection to the threats posed by the “other”. Throughout the following year, the number of crimes reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland increased by over 10% and, as a result the threat level in Northern Ireland has been raised to severe.
Have the Troubles returned? Perhaps they never left. There is no denying that the Good Friday Agreement continues to be an important step in the Northern Ireland peace process. To achieve a ceasefire and some level of cooperation between unionists and nationalists after decades of violence is an incredible feat, but the Agreement does not go far enough. By institutionalizing divisions through a consociational, power-sharing government, peace is extremely precarious. As distrust and violence increase in response to the Northern Ireland Protocol, reviewing and adapting the Good Friday Agreement becomes all the more urgent. Addressing governmental structures and calling for a ceasefire is inadequate to truly resolve conflict, ethnic divides must be addressed and repaired.
Written by Callie Patten; Edited by Reed McIntire
Photo credit to: Michal Pokorný, Unsplash