An inter-governmental executive for Northern Ireland?

Alex Kane and Newton Emerson are two of the foremost unionist commentators on Northern Ireland and are widely read throughout Ireland through their regular columns in the Irish Times and other newspapers. So it matters when Alex Kane concludes, in yesterday’s column, that many in the unionist community have come to the conclusion that the Strand 1 Good Friday Agreement institutions – the Assembly and Executive – are not worth saving.

I have responded with a letter published in the Irish Times (second letter down, just above a letter from Gerry Adams) as follows:

A chara, – Alex Kane concludes that some temporary sticking plaster solution may (just about) be possible but thinks that “increasing numbers across the entire pro-union communities have concluded that the assembly and executive – the key components of the Belfast Agreement – are not worth saving”.

Presumably those unionists prefer the current de facto system of direct rule from Westminster to implementing the solemn agreement they signed in 1998, on the basis of which we changed our constitution and formally recognised British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, until such time as a majority there decided otherwise.

But if unionists are not going to uphold their end of the bargain just because they don’t like the consequences of the Brexit they so avidly campaigned for, does that not mean that the time has come for the British and Irish governments to revisit the Belfast Agreement, and particularly to reinvigorate the Strand 3 institutions of the agreement: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body?

Both governments have a vested interest in the good governance and economic development of Northern Ireland: the UK government because of the rapid increase in the Barnett formula subvention, now variously estimated at between £10 billion and £15 billion a year, and rapidly becoming unaffordable for the British exchequer. The UK economy is also being hugely damaged by the current stand-off with the EU over the protocol.

The Irish Government has a vested interest because of the increasing numbers of Irish citizens and passport holders north of the border who are being denied their democratic right to have a say in the governance of Northern Ireland, including their right to nominate a first minister. Border areas on both sides of the border are also increasingly underdeveloped, compared to the rest of the country, because of the continuing political instability.

Just as there will be consequences for the UK for any failure to implement the withdrawal agreement and protocol with the EU, there must be consequences for the unionist community if they fail to honour the Belfast Agreement, in all its dimensions. Simply falling back on direct rule from Westminster is not consistent with the Belfast Agreement: that is not what the Irish people voted for when we changed our Constitution.

If the Strand 1 institutions – the Assembly and Executive – are not going to be allowed to function, then the Strand 3 institutions must pick up the slack and provide the leadership Northern Ireland so desperately needs at this critical time, if necessary, by forming an inter-governmental executive for Northern Ireland based on the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. – Is mise, etc.

End letter.

It should be noted that the phrase or term “Direct Rule” appears nowhere in the 35 page, 11,686 word, text of the Good Friday Agreement. Failure to implement any part of the agreement is effectively an abrogation of that part of it and I have always been surprised by the forbearance of the Irish government in regard to breaches of this kind.

Attention is most often focused on failures to form an Executive, but the blatant side-tracking of the Strand 3 institutions by the British government has also been egregious. Meetings have been few and far between, with little of substance discussed, and on one famous occasion the British government, after a meeting in London, failed to even provide a room to the Irish government to brief the media afterwards. Then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, was forced to brief the media on the street outside.

Relations between the British and Irish government subsequently descended to their lowest point since the height of the Troubles, particularly when the British government blithely announced its intention to break international law and not implement the protocol to the Withdrawal agreement it had only recently signed, ratified in Parliament and had endorsed by the UK electorate in the 2019 UK general election as Boris Johnson’s famous “oven ready deal”.

Although the mood music has improved since the appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister, nothing of substance has changed since. The EU is still pursuing its legal actions against the UK government for its failures to implement the protocol, and the EU Commission recent assumed increased powers to implement trade sanctions in the event of a continued failure to do so. Rumours of progress in UK EU talks have yet to be substantiated.

Many here will argue that Sinn Fein, too, has been guilty of suspending the Executive, and that “both sides do it”. It should however be noted that previous suspensions of the Executive did not involve suspending the Assembly as well. The DUP has also failed to engage in the Strand 2 North South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement – despite a Belfast High Court ruling that it was legally obliged to do so, and separately, former DUP Minister, Edwin Poots, was found to have broken the law when he ordered the discontinuance of building works required to implement the protocol.

Regardless of who is responsible, it is clear solemn obligations entered into under international treaties are not being fulfilled. Virtually none of the strand 1, 2 or 3 institutions of the Good Friday agreement are fulfilling their Treaty mandated functions, and action needs to be taken if the entire treaty is not going to fall into disrepute and disuse. The UK government may wish to re-negotiate aspects of the protocol with the EU, but first let it demonstrate its good faith by ensuring the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.

Breaking the law and breaching international treaties should always have concrete consequences. No one can force the DUP to do what it doesn’t want to do. But that doesn’t mean that “Direct Rule” should be a cost free alternative route it can take with impunity and without regard to nationalist sensibilities and the commitment of the Irish government to fulfil its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement. No one has suggested reversing the changes to the Irish constitution agreed as part of the compromise deal.

The best way to ensure that all communities in Northern Ireland still have an effective government which respects their interests is to re-constitute the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference as an effective Executive under the supervision of the British–Irish Interparliamentary Body. Democracy must be seen to work, and no one party has the right to stymie its progress particularly when it is being conducted under the auspices of an international treaty.

It is said that Ian Paisley snr. only agreed to implement the Good Friday Agreement when threatened with “Joint Authority” as an alternative. But Joint Authority is a woolly concept which has never been adequately defined or enshrined in law. However, it wouldn’t take much more than a joint commitment, energy and focus to transform the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference into an effective Executive composed of British and Irish government ministers in the absence of a devolved executive.

One of the problems with current negotiations between the UK, Ireland and the EU is that the UK keeps asking for more concessions without having anything concrete to give in return. The Irish government has been clear that it is supportive of anything that can be done to improve trading relationships without breaching the integrity of the single market. Perhaps it is time the UK government was equally clear that it is fully committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Good Friday and Withdrawal Agreements in return for easements and joint supervision of how the protocol is implemented in practice.

Nobody has a long term interest in making UK, EU and Ireland relations even worse than they already are. Good governance, democratic accountability and improved trading relationships matter to all the people on these islands. It shouldn’t be beyond the ingenuity of both sovereign governments to find ways to use existing treaties to achieve those goals. But we must start by respecting the law and the treaties we already have. Trust needs to be rebuilt on all sides, and fully implementing all dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement would be a good way of starting that process.

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