Any appraisal of the Good Friday Agreement, which is passing its 25th anniversary, must start with one fact. Up to 1998, 3,488 lives were claimed by Northern Ireland’s grinding conflict. And then, for the most part, the campaigns of killing stopped. All criticisms of the deal are mere footnotes to that.
The principles of the deal have proved resilient, largely because it has deep political foundations — ratified by majorities in Northern Ireland and Ireland — and a clear moral core. It affirms in law that the island’s two main traditions, nationalist and unionist, are equal in dignity. It states that the current Irish question — whether Northern Ireland stays in the UK or joins the republic to the south — must be answered at the ballot box.
For all the destabilisation provoked by Brexit, that core has remained solid — the only fixed point in the subsequent negotiations. Part of the deal that was agreed between the parties and capitals in 1998 was that Northern Ireland should run itself, but with the two communities nominating “coequal” leaders of the new local executive. It is this element — the political structures — which most urgently needs refreshing.
Today, an increasing share of the population is eschewing the old community labels envisaged by the Good Friday structures. The only growing political community in the province is the “neithers”, principally represented by the Alliance party. Most urgent is the chronic political crisis: the unionist DUP and nationalist Sinn Féin have, between them, killed off political life for all but two of the past six years — using their veto power to bring down the institutions.
The weakness of the Good Friday Agreement was always that it tended to punish moderates in both communities. Reforms introduced in 2006 made things worse, embedding the hardline parties, giving them greater veto powers and discouraging votes for alternative voices from each community.
It is understandable that, whatever the flaws, no one wishes to tamper with the deal. Yet it is time to have the courage to look ahead for the next 25 years. The objective should be to encourage the moderate middle that wants Northern Ireland to prosper. Reform should give more power to the smaller parties that speak for them.
Change will not be easily achieved, and any fix to the treaty will require a long, complex and sprawling negotiation. A vital precondition is active and sustained engagement and co-operation between London and Dublin. While Ireland’s focus has stayed consistent, London’s is more variable. And relations between the two capitals are only now recovering from the antagonisms of Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph born of a rare alignment of stars. Terrorists who saw the armed struggle had run out of road while leaders in London and Dublin were ready to invest political capital in a deal. Perhaps most crucially, nationalism had a leader, John Hume, with a vision, while unionism had the brave David Trimble, who took a risk on it.
There is no such happy alignment today — not least because Sinn Féin may soon take office in Dublin. Reforms to the agreement that help their rivals in the north may not go anywhere soon. But moments such as 1998 do not come out of nowhere. They nearly always represent the culmination of years of previous unrewarded effort. It is time to start trying.
Northern Ireland needs more functional politics and a way to move on. It is still a divided place where the two communities live too far apart. Fortunately, there are plenty of moderates — unionist, nationalist and neithers — who want to make the province work. The next phase must be about helping them.