Care is needed to stop the wheels coming off the Good Friday Agreement

I suppose it was inevitable. On the fringes of Westminster politics the alignment of Leave with a Brexit Union and Remain with support for the GFA is hardening, as shown in reaction to the failure so far to restore Stormont. This is what happens when people dip into the issues and pull out again. Living with them requires steadiness.

Former secretary of state, stout Brexiteer and Shropshire lad Owen Paterson tweets that the GFA “has outlived its use.” Kate Hooey, socially progressive in England but constitutionally conservative for her native land calls  for “a cold rational look at the Belfast agreement.” Peter Hain and Mark Durkan fellow contributors to the process that resulted in the amending St Andrews’ Agreement,  make their furious replies and Irish foreign minster Simon Coveney has issued his warning. Unionists believe fears for peace are exaggerated and a case of  self serving nationalism.  If the gaps widen  Northern Ireland will be the loser.

The sequence started by MEP Dan Hannan in his Telegraph column  gives little comfort to unionists however. It’s more of a plague on both their houses.  Nationalists be aware.  He writes:

As The Guardian (no friend to unionism) puts it, “Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists”.

The DUP, duly antagonised, responded with all the grace and agility of an elephant confronted by a mouse. Northern Ireland has had no government for 13 months. Direct rule seems inevitable – and that is no bad thing.

The Belfast Agreement is often spoken about in quasi-religious terms – literally, for it is more widely known as the Good Friday Agreement. But its flaws have become clearer over time. The original deal represented a bribe to two sets of hardliners who, having opposed power-sharing, came to support it when they realised that they would be the direct beneficiaries. For 20 years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch. A permanent grand coalition leaves them free to reward their supporters with subsidies and sinecures.

“Well, that’s better than shooting each other,” say well-meaning people. But the Belfast Agreement was a consequence, not a cause, of the end of terrorism, and there are less corrupting ways to guarantee civilian politics. I’m all for power-sharing. Indeed, being of Ulster Catholic origin on one side and Scots Presbyterian on the other, I feel something of a personal stake in it. I don’t object to the Belfast Agreement on orange or green grounds, but on democratic grounds. It’s unhealthy to have the same people in office all the time.

The shortcomings of the power sharing structures are worth debating if recollected in tranquility.  There is no lack of ideas for  reform. But is now the time? And what could be agreed to replace them?  Other  divergences are  widening over the scope of what the GFA  actually covers. Is there really much  justification for  fears for the rights of Irish citizens after Brexit, as expressed in the round robin circulated by Michael Finucane in Dublin?

     In the letter, Mr Varadkar is told that the signatories are “shocked at the level of permanent inequality in respect of access to rights that people in the North are expected to endure”. “In summary,” it says, “these are: marriage equality, language equality and access to justice before a court of law”.

If all these  were to simply to be imposed by the courts, what  democratic accountability would exist in Belfast, London or even Dublin?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London