The Good Friday Agreement: A Milestone, not the Finish Line

Twenty years on since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and it is now being called into question, but not for the right reasons. The agreement’s fitness for purpose has been challenged in recent weeks as it is perceived as standing in the way of the hard Brexit that some desire. Rather than question the agreement because Northern Ireland is currently without an assembly or because even whilst there was an assembly in place its legislative record was pitiful, some British politicians have decided that what is more important is their ideologically driven desire for a clean break from the EU and that is what is worth challenging the agreement over. I have some different problems with the Good Friday Agreement.

I was born in Belfast one year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and I am eternally grateful to the people who had the political will to formulate and sign a document that allowed me to grow up in a Northern Ireland of relative peace and a Northern Ireland that has become increasingly more tolerant. And yet now as I reach the age of being able to vote in elections I have another desire, and that is to have local representation, and in that sense the Good Friday Agreement is letting us down. I can understand people’s attachment to any agreement that is able to bring peace where previously there was violence, but that does not mean that every single aspect of it is infallible. It is important not to confuse a commitment and loyalty to peace in Northern Ireland as being synonymous with a commitment and loyalty to every single detail of the Good Friday Agreement.

This week, while attending an Imagine Festival event discussing the Good Friday Agreement I noticed that the consensus, amongst most adults in the room who had been old enough to vote in the referendum to ratify the agreement, was that what they had voted for was peace and that at that time the details had been of secondary importance. But now it is those details that are preventing us from receiving proper local representation.

The currant suspension of Stormont is largely being blamed on politicians and they certainly do deserve a significant proportion of the blame. However, there is a bigger picture and we might not be in a position where those politicians are able to decide whether or not we have an assembly if it wasn’t for the systems of the institution in which they are working. Systems that are in some cases designed to benefit the largest parties and not the people.

For example the Agreement states that upon entering the assembly MLAs must designate as ‘Unionist’ ‘Nationalist’ or simply ‘Other’. With ‘Other’ MLAs being powerless in instances of cross community votes or a petition of concern. With only one Catholic ever having designated Unionist and one Protestant ever having designated Nationalist this system of designation encourages our politics to divide along the same lines as it has always done and prevents us from ever moving on.

There is an argument that regardless of this designation system the reality on the ground is that Northern Ireland remains a divided society and this system is needed to protect the rights of the two communities. However, in a recent poll of people in Northern Ireland more people self-described as ‘Other’ than as either Unionist or Nationalist, a fact that causes this argument to quickly lose traction. While our minorities are of course important we could protect them with a Bill of Rights which would negate the need for a Petition of Concern and the system of designation that comes with it. A Bill of Rights would also have the significant advantage of providing for more than just the two groups that the system of designation currently caters for.

In short what we need is an updated system of government for a changing Northern Ireland.

Finn Purdy is a student from Belfast, currently studying at Trinity College Dublin.