With the Northern Ireland Assembly boycotted by unionists, Geoff Bell says the Good Friday Agreement – along with the NI statelet – is not as robust as many believe
On 31st March, this appeared in Belfast’s Irish News:
The 1998 peace/political process is closer to collapse than most people realise, partly because too many continue to delude themselves with the belief that it is too big to fail. It isn’t. It is failing every day… And here is the real kicker: its failure will signal that we cannot find a way to make Northern Ireland work, which will in turn raise a new host of questions about what to do next. Nothing persuades me that we are ready to face that brutal reality.
The writer was Alex Kane, a unionist, although not a typical one. Here, he correctly identifies the political reality that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is in a fragile state and that a big conversation is needed in Ireland and Britain about what happens next. While celebrations and self-congratulations mark the 25th anniversary of the GFA, the reality is that in terms of power-sharing, cross-border institutions, human rights legislation and many other promises, it is dormant and has been for long periods of its existence.
The most recent recast is the Windsor Framework, designed to sort out the Northern Irish Protocol that was objected to by unionists. Some say the framework was primarily about sensible Tories wanting to rebuild relations with Europe – and there is strength in that judgment. However, it was promoted as persuading the Democratic Unionists to return to power-sharing and to re-establish the primacy of the GFA.
It is not surprising that the DUP refused to instantly endorse the framework. Their dilemma was obvious. If they did not return to power-sharing, they would attract the displeasure of the British, the EU and the Americans. If they did, they would have to endorse a member of Sinn Féin as First Minister of Northern Ireland, because the party won the May 2022 Assembly election. This would be the first time an Irish republican assumed such a position. As the statelet was established in 1921 to ensure a permanent pro-British majority, and as Sinn Féin want the end of this polity, there are indeed contradictions galore in that party now assuming its leadership.
There is another context. Northern Ireland today has the appearance of a failed entity. It is not just that unionists refuse to implement an election result. The economy is in tatters, the health service broken down, loyalist drug gangs inhabit their communities, while dissident republican violence is re-emerging. As for the grander hopes of the GFA, the physical walls dividing the Belfast working class remain, integrated education is as far away as ever, and loyalist working-class youth indulge in street violence whenever their elders tell them.
All of this is Kane’s “brutal reality”. British politicians inhabit a different world. For example, both Tories and Labour refuse to answer calls from all nationalist parties to detail the conditions for a border poll provided for under the GFA.
When Keir Starmer visited Derry in early March, a school pupil asked him how he would approach this. He replied, “I don’t think we are anywhere near a border poll, I have to say. But in answer to your question: in accordance with the GFA, which was clear about the way in which the Government would operate in those circumstances.”
This was nonsense. The GFA precisely does not spell out when or in what circumstance a border poll will be called, leaving it instead to the discretion of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. It is up to his or her whim or fancy.
Then, there is Starmer’s judgement that the border poll is a long way off. So, Labour refuses to say what the criteria for the poll are, but then announces they have not been met. Readers of Catch-22 will be familiar with this logic.
Labour’s Irish policy was further elaborated when the Commons debated the Windsor Framework on 22nd March. Starmer had already declared he would support this without even having seen its details. This latest version of the familiar Tory/Labour bipartisanship on Ireland was embarrassing enough, but then Peter Kyle, Labour’s spokesperson on Northern Ireland, spoke. He did qualify bipartisanship – but by accusing the Tories of not acting soon enough to accommodate the DUP. He said, “So, the [DUP] demand for action is warranted; it is based on real concerns, not confected ones.” He reiterated the “legitimate concerns of the DUP”. He even asserted “we all want to see Northern Ireland’s devolved government back up and running – I know that is what DUP Members want to see, too”.
This last assertion ignored the words and actions of the DUP since they had walked out of the Assembly a year before. The delusory nature of Kyle’s misplaced faith in the party was confirmed when the DUP MPs voted against the framework. They may yet adopt different tactics, but to invest the DUP with the good intentions as Kyle did is to rebrand and legitimatise them out of all recognition with their contemporary and historic politics. Kyle then ended his speech with another fantasy, reeking of colonial paternalism. He said, “We should aspire to build respect among [Northern Ireland] communities and be a voice for all communities here in Westminster.”
Respect? Westminster? Northern Ireland? That might be some sort of British joke. In the real world, Alex Kane’s “new host of questions” loom larger every day.