Strand one was the name given to the collective socio-legal structures of devolution and inter-community governance in Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Unlike the North-South Ministerial Council (strand two) or the British-Irish council (strand three) it is the part of the agreement most relevant to and most recognised by the NI population.
At its heart strand one is beyond the structural concerns of the Assembly and Executive, it is about the principle of subsidiarity so that power is exercised as close to the people it affects. Roads, rail, schools and hospitals to name but a few are governed by local representation because for so long in our conflicted history this place was little understood by those without lived experience of it in their daily life.
Now as we approach the end stage of the “post-conflict” era (which I mark as the end of community designation in the assembly) strand one feels like it is under attack like never before. To borrow from an analogy I saw this week, nationalism is attempting in its calling for an immediate border poll to build an “additional highway” around the GFA.
Appealing though this narrative is, unionism has done its fair share to bash the GFA and in particular strand one itself. The DUP notoriously spent 9 years fighting to scrap it then demanded concessions at Saint Andrew’s so that they could exercise a near unlimited right of veto even over executive ministers, if Ulster couldn’t be ruled by majority then better it be blocked by majority.
Much to the delight of the legal profession we now have a US style of governance where perfectly timed legal advice or the review of a high court judge can put an axe through public policy. Although such procedural roadblocks do exist and do impede the public image of the GFA, devolution is still popular when faced with the prospect of direct rule or de-facto direct rule of an Assembly suspension.
This is why I think it would be a mistake for nationalism to take the “additional highway” and insist upon a new Ireland whereby Belfast and Derry become as Cork and Kerry. This is not how politics works and it certainly isn’t how politics works in a divided society such as ours. It has even been mooted by some nationalists that strand one would stay and that Dublin would take not only sovereignty but authority over the “reserved matters” not within the legal remit of Stormont (Brendan O’Leary on BBC Talkback).
Whatever road nationalism takes, it is clear that unionism has been gearing itself to be the strand one defenders. The DUP made a great deal about assembly consent on the Withdrawal agreement – hoping of course that they could exercise their veto which it is clear they cannot do. It has been a tonal shift within a unionism at peace with the GFA and finally accepting that it has kept fringe temptations in check which in the past blighted official unionism – e.g. William Craig.
As I noted in my piece about “copper fastening Stormont” to make this island a truly shared space, we need to challenge ourselves to take devolution off the table of any post unity scenario (unity with GB or RoI). Going into a border poll with an “all or nothing” attitude (especially post Brexit) is not only politically cynical, its toxic to public debate and could even be dangerous.