The Good Friday Agreement is no longer fit for purpose: can it be reformed?

The moderators on this site have, for a while, been expressing opinions about a lack of unionist voices in the blogs, so I thought to chip in and contribute my own proverbial two cents from a moderate but conservative-minded Ulster Unionist perspective. This is my first time so forgive me if it’s rough around the edges…

Firstly, a bit about me; I am a social and economic conservative and long-time UUP supporter in the vein of O’Neill and Faulkner, in that I believe reconciliation between the divided N.I. communities require risks and compromise on both sides. I am adamant that hardliner unionism/loyalism bringing down the Sunningdale reforms was the biggest own goal we ever committed, adding an unnecessary two decades and over two thousand deaths to the Troubles that so easily could have been avoided. I would much rather have preferred those reforms to have remained than the subsequent Good Friday Agreement, of which I voted against and would again if given the opportunity.

That being said, we are where we are and it’s imperative that we play the cards we’ve been dealt by history and make the best of it. But there’s no doubt that, nearly a quarter-century after the signing of the aforementioned GFA that we are not only no nearer to a reconciled and ‘shared’ society but if anything. we’re actually regressing to time-worn battle lines that were supposed to be consigned to history amidst the principle of consent and consociational governance.

It seems to me that the now-halcyon days of ‘the Chuckle brothers’ has given way, since McGuinness (a restraining influence on the worst SF tendencies) has left the scene, to rampant and unapologetic culture wars between the two main parties… a zero-sum game of war by attrition that left us without devolved government for three years (not including four-and-a-half years between late 2002 and spring 2007) that allowed Westminster to interfere in the otherwise devolved affairs of the province in a way they wouldn’t have had the DUP/SF muppet show worked out better.

That culture war is turning fractures into deep fissures that are on the verge of tearing the hard-won peace to shreds and risking a return to the bad old days… and make no mistake, they could well return if circumstances help it, from what I’m hearing on the ground.

I may not have supported the GFA, but there’s no argument that it brought this province if not peace then an absence of armed conflict, and for that, we should be grateful. It was, of course, impossible for the architects of that agreement to foresee every subsequent problem that may arise from it at the time. The GFA should be an evolving, changing entity that adjusts with time and circumstance if there is good faith there to do so.

So, in the interests of brevity, let me suggest a few reforms that I feel are necessary to maintain the integrity of the GFA and to hopefully move away from the culture wars that are threatening to subsume it;

  • Close down the Northern Ireland Office and the office of the Secretary of State. Have a High Commissioner appointed by the Prime Minister to act as a non-political representative of the Crown in the province, with all reserved matters not transferred to the Assembly handled by the relevant Whitehall departments.
  • Keep the Assembly at 90 members elected on PR, and across the 18 proposed new Westminster constituencies. Remove the designations and allow a voluntary cross-community coalition to be formed. Retain the petition of concern as is but stipulate that it requires at least 60% of Assembly members (54) voting in unison to override it. Pass a new standing order that should a motion on a particular subject be debated in the Assembly, that another motion on the same subject cannot be held again in the current mandate unless at least 75% of members (68) vote to do so.
  • Make the First Ministers equal in name as well as duties… no ‘deputy’, no ‘joint’, just First Minister for both dual positions.
  • Increase the power of the First Ministers so instead of simply chairing Executive meetings, they actually jointly agree and direct policy for said Executive from the front.
  • Agree upon and approve a ‘neutral’ NI flag – my suggestion would be a white diagonal cross against a bright emerald green background – that in the absence of an agreement to the Union flag being flown, then the new NI flag be flown in its place, with no other flag except the Union or new NI flag permitted to be flown on official buildings.
  • Merge the Equality and Human Rights Commissions into a single body, appointed by and answerable to the Executive Office, especially when it comes to initiating legal proceedings.
  • A prohibition on all public buildings being lit to commemorate any and all political and/or social causes.
  • Pass the Public Assemblies, Parades, and Protests Bill proposed in 2010.
  • Have all Assembly-related legislation passed by Westminster transferred to the Assembly’s legislative remit?
  • Lay a new ‘Cultural Identities and Languages’ bill before the Assembly where our elected representatives can debate and decide on this issue, however long it takes, rather than have Westminster politicos decide for us.

Maybe I’ve missed something out in the above, but I do believe all of it would be a very positive restart to the, let’s be frank, utterly dysfunctional governance we have at present. But any comments, queries, and criticisms would be most welcome from the Slugger commentariat… have at it…

Stephen Stewart is a copywriter and content manager currently living in exile from Norn Iron. A Faulknerite unionist and an analogue person in a digital age.