The Good Friday Agreement 25 Years on and the ‘Test’ of the Alliance Party…

This Easter marks the 25 year anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The anniversary is being marked in the context of the absence of the Assembly and a functioning Executive. This has placed in focus the number of years in which the strand one institutions of the GFA have not functioned in the period since 1998.

One major difference between 1998 and 2023 is the position of the Alliance Party. In 1998 Alliance secured 6 seats in the 108 member Assembly. And in the 2003 Assembly election the party appeared to be in its death throws, winning only a 3.7% vote share. In contrast, by 2023 Alliance is well established as the third party of Northern Ireland, making it possible to meaningfully talk of Northern Ireland as a society of three minorities and not two tribes. The ‘test’ of the Alliance Party 25 years after the GFA is whether the party’s success can be attributed to the out-workings of the GFA or the opposite, as a reaction to the GFAs failures. I would like to argue it is both.

The place to begin the story of Alliance’s recent success is following the 2016 abeyance of the Stormont institutions. Once dissatisfaction with the absence of functioning institutions had settled in Alliance began to reap electoral dividends in successful local, European and general elections. The failure to restore the Executive following the 2017 Assembly election accounts, in part, for Alliance’s success in these and in this sense was a reaction to the failures of the GFA.

Brexit too played a vital role in Alliance’s growth. This was arguably a success of the GFA. Brexit witnessed in significant part the liberal bottom of Unionism dropping out. As Brexit had to be compatible with the Agreement in terms of the United Kingdom’s international treaty obligations, the GFA has come to function as a de facto constitutional check on Westminster and Northern Ireland politicians and their constitutional and political wishes. For many liberal Unionists Brexit clarified a choice between a commitment to the spirit of the GFA and British nationhood as their primary political concern. In choosing the former, it established on the part of this constituency an aspirational commitment to a reconciled society in the programme of the Alliance Party – that which, if anything, underscores the spirit of the GFA. One could of course see this also as a failing, in clarifying a commitment to reconciliation on behalf of only one part of Unionism, the constitutional check of the GFA on Brexit severely weakened Unionism’s pro and anti-GFA coalition, leaving it significantly orientated to the latter, as recent polls have indicated.

One might conclude, however, with a glass half full interpretation of the GFA. Although the glass is only half full, and not filled to its metaphorical top, with an absent Executive and Assembly, aspects of the Agreement have been a success. For all its political failings, Northern Ireland as a society is radically different 25 years on. Academics sometimes posit the difference between a negative and a positive peace, the former being the simple cessation of violence and the latter the realisation of a reconciled society. It is true that Northern Ireland has a way to go to realise a positive peace, if indeed that is ever possible, however, a negative peace is not a trivial achievement. In this sense, it is a half glass full achievement. Northern Ireland has a generation who have not lived ‘securitised’ lives, which has facilitated a social mixing not seen 25 years before and has likely been a powerful instrument in the rise of the Alliance Party. We can say then that if the rise of the Alliance Party is the litmus test for the success of the Good Friday Agreement, the Agreement has not succeeded resoundingly, but neither has it been a failure.

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