In a 130 page report, the Constitution Unit of University College London has reviewed how the GFA has worked out over the past quarter century. It used party manifestoes and focus group and elite group interviews to deliver a sober account which is necessarily an outsider’s product. No bad thing if it succeeds in creating greater attention in London in particular.
We are acutely aware that few politicians in Great Britain today have invested much time in understanding Northern Ireland’s politics deeply. The same can also be said to a large degree in Dublin. Within Northern Ireland, meanwhile, as is true in any polarised context, there is some tendency for all sides to ‘other’ those with different perspectives, rather than to seek to understand why others think as they do…
The consensus that the Agreement is ‘the only game in town’ for Northern Ireland’s future still holds, but it has been shaken, and there are widespread, if often undefined, calls for reform.
Many interviewees expressed worries that, while the Agreement has brought tremendous improvements in terms of greater peace and enhanced prosperity, some parts of society have largely missed out on those gains. Concerns about parts of the loyalist community were particularly widespread. Some interviewees, despite seeing a need for reform, worried that any attempt to amend one part of the Agreement could cause others to unravel as well.
In all eight of our focus groups – which spanned across Northern Ireland’s nationalist, republican, unionist, loyalist, and non-aligned communities – participants expressed deep anger that, during the suspension of the institutions, Northern Ireland’s politicians continued to be paid while, as participants saw it, not doing their jobs. This fed a deep sense that politicians were a class apart who served their own interests. Most people focused primarily on day-to-day issues – the cost of living and quality of public services – not constitutional issues, and they wanted politicians to get on with delivering on matters such as healthcare and education.
Most supported the GFA in principle, but harder-line unionists, who were overwhelmingly hostile to the Agreement. They returned again and again throughout the discussion to the idea that the Agreement was about the release of paramilitary prisoners – which they strongly resented. The other group comprised loyalists. They had supported the Agreement initially, but had become increasingly disillusioned. They expressed a deep sense of betrayal by the British government, which they thought had no understanding of their lives.
Constitutional issues and Brexit
Beyond the basic question of whether they wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK or become part of a united Ireland, most interviewees did not have developed thoughts. Most agreed that a ‘border poll’ was not an immediate prospect, though Brexit had disrupted many assumptions about the likelihood of a united Ireland… We also asked interviewees for their thoughts on the current constitutional set-up within the UK and whether it should be changed. Views on this were even less defined than they were on Irish unity.
… we note the recurring concern that both London and Dublin have disengaged from Northern Ireland affairs and that, without re-engagement, progress on many matters will be difficult. Politicians, former officials, and academics were all keen to emphasise this point.
The report concludes by highlighting four key points…, An elite consensus – which we share – holds that the Agreement is ‘the only game in town’ for Northern Ireland’s future. Second, however, while most members of the wider public in Northern Ireland accept that consensus view, some do not…
Third, while the Agreement provides the framework, there is general agreement that change is needed: that the status quo is not sustainable…
Finally, however, there is also fear of change: fear that things will get worse rather than better, that the ‘other side’ will gain while one’s own side loses. Change is needed, but change needs trust. In order to make progress in the coming years, political leadership from London, Dublin, and the major political parties will have a vital role in rebuilding trust. That will require them, above all, to listen, and to work by the Agreement’s ethos of respecting difference, sharing power, and seeking consensual ways forward.
The Report doesn’t attempt to get under the skin. It focuses on how the Agreement is regarded without describing how sections of it are politically weaponised by one party or another. It avoids value judgements. The word “sectarian” is unused. There is little about blood and guns here or a search for ulterior motives. Although they would be more revealing than anything else, the inside stories of manoeuvring in the Assembly and Executive which produced the failed attempts of Fresh Start and New Decade, New Approach will have to wait for another day.
For all that politics is obsessed by the constitutional questions, the authors were struck by the lack of substance in the cases for both Unity and even more so, the Union. Here is a paradox. The Assembly and the GFA retaining the constitutional link must be the basis of the case for the Union even though nationalists are supporting the Assembly and the DUP are boycotting it. Because nationalists are assumed to be comfortable with the three stranded Agreement, the report paid little attention to them. Loyalist rejection of the GFA only makes perverse sense is if it is part of a wrecking strategy to put people off unity. But it will never be strong enough as to constitute a veto. Majority opinion could just as easily go the other way.
Analysis by itself will never be been enough. If you’re still analysing, you’re not deciding. The time to work on prescriptions has come. The NI civil service should confront the parties with a list of crucial decisions that only ministers can take. “Reform” is mooted but not developed. Almost certainly a super majority would be a favour of easing the straightjacket of the mutual veto. Here the argument is circular as it is for trust. Without trust you cannot reform; but reform is needed to produce trust. The British government should cease their infernal teasing and join with Dublin to champion the cause of both. The obstacles to intergovernmental cooperation are gradually being removed. The Windsor Framework may yet soften the disastrous impact of Brexit. Joint authority is a unionist bogey. Pressure for reform can easily be accommodated within the GFA framework. The UK government have in fact been more interventionist than they’re given credit (or blamed) for. Consider the ill- fated backstop, the framework, the order to implement abortion, support for Irish culture. But Westminster should be more consisitent in exercising devolved powers, within a framework of time and pressure to restore the Assembly.
Grounds might be prepared for a new Stormont conference for the stakeholders; but this is difficult to imagine before the next UK and Irish elections unless the DUP were to return quickly to the Assembly. Sinn Fein in government north and south would prove a challenge to all parties including themselves. Either way, internal reform at Stormont should not be long delayed. For the moment let the wider future take care of itself. If the nearer future is not better cared for, the outlook will be bleak.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London