How do we save the Belfast Agreement if we ignore the continual mothballing of its key institutions?

Alex Kane this week put into the public domain a question I’ve been thinking about privately a lot since the most recent collapse of Stormont, and is one that has to be answered before there’s any real hope of progress.

That is that we really need to take a long and serious look at the workings of the Belfast Agreement, and support what’s worked but to be really clear eyed about its ongoing failure to promote power sharing.

Here’s his opening paragraph:

Listening to the opinions and concerns of key players from the EU, US and British and Irish governments over the last couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Belfast Agreement had been a roaring success since 1998.

Yes, we have replaced conflict with conflict stalemate and, generally speaking, the shadow of the gun has been removed from everyday life; yet the most commonly aired argument in favour of the Belfast Agreement is that it has made things “better than they used to be”.

And for that we should be grateful.

But he’s right to say that whatever the problem facing us (and for now it’s the protocol which everyone but the unionist parties is playing a short game of recidivist silly buggers), when it is solved another will come along.

And he’s right to point out that over 24 years the institutions have spent some 35% of the time in non operational mode (not counting the period of 154 days when Sinn Fein refused to allow the executive to meet).

Alex writes:

Since 2007, one crisis has followed another. One British/Irish government intervention has followed another. One stand-off or suspension has followed another. One complete meltdown has followed another.

One US special envoy has followed another. In other words, while the reason for the crisis, intervention, stand-off, suspension, meltdown and envoy may change, the stasis appears to be serial and unavoidable.

So these crises are a feature not a bug. A system that was supposed to operate in such a way that mutual trust was not necessary for the operation of the institutions, has become a manufactory of communal mistrust:

Mandatory mutual veto, mandatory mutual consent required for key decisions and mandatory coalition is now underpinned by mutual mistrust (which isn’t mandatory but may as well be) and overshadowed by the inevitability of a border poll.

The border poll scenario is a fantasy albeit a powerful one which for the nationalist electorate has transformed each Assembly election into a proxy border poll (which has shown no improvement over twenty years).

74% of the NI population may think they want the cost of living crisis addressed, but what they get each time they go out to vote is more stasis, more inaction and they find themselves left very much to their own devices.

Alex again…

At what point do we accept that power-sharing (which I’ll define as two communities and a growing demographic of “others” co-operating together in common cause) is not going to happen? Fair enough, the parties have often agreed to appoint ministers and even wave the occasional programme for government in the air, but the ministers mostly operate in silos and pursue individual party interests rather than collective interests.

And even when they pretend to agree on something, their backbenchers tend to be given free rein to criticise what is supposed to be executive policy.

At what point do we acknowledge that, after 25 years and for all the talk about the rise of the centre ground at the last election, almost 80 per cent of those who voted still did so for parties which clearly identify as either pro-United Kingdom or pro-united Ireland; and that 80 per cent of the assembly seats are still occupied by those who have designated as unionist or nationalist.

Opinion polls may have suggested that a whopping majority of voters claimed to be prioritising socioeconomic issues over the constitutional question, yet a whopping majority voted for what are best understood as “constitutional question” parties.

It should be added that one of the few parties constituted around purposes other than on the constitutional question, The Greens, also found themselves swamped by the ‘plague on both your houses’ Alliance party.

So we have three main parties now: mainstream unionist, mainstream nationalist, and neither of the above (a coping mechanism for those who find either of the above an increasingly intolerable option).

There’s not much to say about where this takes us, other than further into the structural cut de sac, which is when Alex unleashes a genius (if a little stretched) Dickensian metaphor:

Maybe the ultimate irony, though, is that so much effort is being made to defend the Belfast Agreement (which I can understand) without trying to understand why the institutional aspects of it (particularly the assembly and executive) have failed to deliver on the hope of change that was at the heart of the agreement and the referendum. Worse, with the shadow of a border poll likely to hang over every dimension of local politics for at least the next decade, there will be no serious or sustained effort to address the flaws and failings of the key institutions.

Which means, as I noted earlier, that we are likely to continue the stop/start cycle of showdown, stand-off, suspension, crisis talks and further collapse. The most blinding acceptance of that reality is to be found in legislative changes made earlier this year which allow the executive to morph into the political equivalent of Miss Havisham for up to six months at a time – albeit with no great expectations of success. Indeed, to torture this particular metaphor, Stormont would become a very bleak house.

This appears to align with Alex’s own understandable (but predispositionally) pessimistic stance. What’s required is a future positive use of this highly accurate analysis. And he follows up with the right question:

So, here’s the conundrum: how do we save the Belfast Agreement if we continue to ignore the fact that its key institutions have had more experience of mothballing than my late great-aunt’s fur coats? I accept that the Belfast Agreement project is still regarded as being too strategically important to be seen to fail; which is why the British, Irish and American governments are focusing so much attention on it. But the institutions were always intended to be more important than the overarching structures.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen and heard so many interested parties line up in support of the Belfast Agreement – including some who have shown no previous interest in it. It’s just a pity they haven’t shown a similar interest in finding ways of making its political-electoral institutions more effective and more suited to addressing the mountain of socio/economic/health problems Northern Ireland has faced since 1998.

Our institutions keep us stuck within a series of obsolete narratives, be that the archaic fantasy of defending a Protestant Ulster or the opposite (and damaging) one of putting planters (back) on the boat to Scotland.

We need a nudge to step outside those narratives, and ideas about how to build on the Belfast Agreement to make the institutions that were supposed to point the way to the future also function within the here and now.

If you have any ideas about how we could make some of this happen, please feel free to drop me an email: editor at sluggerotoole dot com?

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