#politics #Ireland #NorthernIreland #GoodFridayAgreement
To cite this paper: Bernard Mulholland, ‘The 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement: the next 25 Years’, Polyphony, 366, pp. 28-34.
The 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement: the next 25 Years
The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement 1998 (GFBA) receives little or no attention in Great Britain. It can easily be argued that few if any English have ever read the document or the British/European legislation and, much like their Irish counterparts, those that have read it probably don’t understand it.
A key reason for this state of affairs is, arguably, the document is presented arse-about-face, i.e. the wrong way round. It begins with the mundane, i.e. Northern Ireland, which is the most insignificant part of the Agreement, and ends with the British-Irish Council, which is by far the most important section detailing relationships between these two islands and the nations that inhabit them. And even this is not the pinnacle, for both the British and Irish were, at the time this Agreement was negotiated and agreed, full Member States of the European Union (EU) and so the Agreement itself sits within the body of law that underpins that supranational entity. Were that not sufficient to grab your attention, then the fact that the United States administration, primarily of the Democrats and Bill Clinton, but including Republican administrations bookending his, played a key role in driving forward this Agreement adds a further dimension to that raises it to another level altogether. And so what, on the surface at least, appears to be a simple document intended solely for consumption by a bunch of Irish culchies in Ulster is really an international treaty of some considerable importance.
As any academic will explain, context is everything, and, without understanding the context for this GFBA, both academics and political commentators are flying blind. Moreover, understanding the context for the GFBA is also arguably key to planning for the next twenty-five years, which underlies the theme of the planned conference to be held next Spring to mark the 25th anniversary of the GFBA. Furthermore, there is a tendency for drift in these matters, primarily due to these events being curated by those who have little or no knowledge of the context because they were not involved, but also because the agenda – political, military, diplomatic, and otherwise – change with time. The GFBA is not merely a historic event trapped in 1998 but is instead an active ingredient in current political, military, diplomatic and other active areas of interest. The clearest hint of this is inherent in the term ‘the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, i.e. it is an ever evolving entity shaped by players and onlookers, both past and present.
As a humble historian, Byzantinist, Patristics scholar, and an archaeologist who scrabbles around among the dirt, this text can only reflect my own unimportant observations on the GFBA and its context.
The 1998 Act of Union: the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement 1998.
It almost goes without saying that almost no-one appears to have actually read the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. In this article it will be referred to simply as the GFBA 1998. Of those that have read it, it seems few ever get past the opening paragraphs that specifically refer to Northern Ireland (NI), and especially to where it establishes the relationship between Great Britain and Ireland within the EU.
How many understand that the GFBA 1998 is arguably the penultimate legislation in a series of Acts of Union affecting these islands of Great Britain and Ireland stretching from the Union with England Act 1707 (Crown, 2022a), the Union with Ireland Act 1800 (Crown, 2022b), and the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (Crown, 2022c)? The first (1707) married Scotland to England and Wales, and the second added Ireland to the mix. The third in the sequence (1920) envisaged a complex divorce from Ireland (UK Parliament, 2020) in which two devolved legislatures, the ‘Parliament of Northern Ireland’ and the ‘Parliament of Southern Ireland’, were to be established together with a Council of Ireland. Of these only the Northern Ireland Parliament was to see light of day at that time, with the Parliament of Southern Ireland manifesting itself instead as the ‘Irish Free State’ which later morphed into the Republic of Ireland in 1949 after the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2022).
The GFBA 1998 was largely negotiated between the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which were the two largest NI political parties at that time, albeit with input from the British and Irish governments, and also the U.S. administration and European Union. It had three strands that were designed to accommodate three tiers of relationships.
In simple terms:
(i) Strand one: the lowest tier dealt with relationships between three recognised designations known as ‘unionists’, ‘nationalists’ (also included republicans) and non-aligned ‘others’ in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unionists prioritise the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Nationalists, including republicans, prioritise a united Ireland. Others are from neither of the other two designations. Ministers are selected using the d’Hondt system, and the First and Deputy First Ministers were originally selected from the largest and second largest designation respectively. But the NI Assembly soon became bogged down with internecine infighting both between designated unionists and nationalists, and also within both of these designations, i.e. unionist on unionist, and nationalist on republican infighting. However, both the UUP and SDLP were soon eclipsed at the polls by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin who then proceeded to remove the log jam in fresh negotiations that led to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which, among other things, decreed that the First Minister be selected by the largest political party, and the Deputy First Minister by the second largest party. However, where the largest political party did not also come from the largest designation, the Deputy First Minister would be selected by the largest party in the largest designation.
(ii) Strand two: the intermediate tier dealt with relations on the island of Ireland of Ireland. It achieved this through establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council, which is effectively an embryonic Council of Ireland envisaged in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. It provides for ministers from the NI Executive and Dáil Éireann to agree policies that can be implemented across both jurisdictions.
(iii) Strand three: the GFBA 1998 legislates for a British-Irish Council comprised of representatives of ‘the British and Irish Governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales […] together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands’. This was supplemented by a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to meet at Summit level, i.e. between British prime minister and taoiseach, to deal with the totality of relationships.
The significance of the GFBA 1998 is that it is an agreement between two Member States of the European Union and, after implementation of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement 2020, is now an agreement between the Member States of the European Union (EU) and a third party, i.e. the United Kingdom. However, this is an oversimplification as in the Brexit referendum Northern Ireland (Figure 1), after its electorate voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, is at the time of writing technically also a Member State of the EU (European Commission, 2022). Of some significance and relevance is that whereas the Brexit referendum took place under the auspices of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which is arguably ill-defined, the GFBA is well-defined EU legislation.
Some political commentators argue that the GFBA 1998 is prescriptive in providing solely for a referendum on a ‘united Ireland’. However, close reading of the GFBA 1998 (Crown, 2022d) demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case:
Status of Northern Ireland.
(1) It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1.
(2) But if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.
The first paragraph takes precedence, and it merely provides that Northern Ireland shall not cease to be part of the United Kingdom unless a majority of its electorate/people vote to do so in a poll held for that purpose, i.e. the poll is for NI to leave the UK. It is only in the second paragraph that the option of the Northern Ireland electorate specifically voting to leave the UK to form part of a united Ireland is mentioned. And the first paragraph of Schedule 1 simply refers back to section 1 in a circular argument.
Schedule 1. Polls for the purposes of section 1 observes that:
1 The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order.
2 Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
Whilst the second paragraph is specific to a ‘united Ireland’, the first paragraph simply refers back to section 1, which observes that NI shall not cease to be in the UK without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes. But why split hairs here and for what purpose?
Brexit and the Withdrawal Agreement
Well, arguably under the auspices of the GFBA 1998, during 2016 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, acting in concert with their Cabinet colleagues, called a referendum in Northern Ireland on membership of the European Union, and in this referendum the Northern Ireland electorate, who at this time were citizens of the European Union taking part in a referendum held inside the EU, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. But, crucially, they did not vote to form part of a united Ireland, and so NI was instead accorded de facto status as a Member State of the EU (Figure 1) in its own right, which arguably affords NI the status of a sovereign nation in the EU, i.e. equal to France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and all the other Member States.
And so, after the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was signed, the outworking of the NI Protocol, which was negotiated by the British government and the DUP, means that Northern Ireland is now also a Member State of the EU in its own right as outlined above. Confirmation of this observation can be found on the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) website where its leader, Jim Allister (2022), argues:
The Protocol has left this part of the United Kingdom as effectively an EU colony, subject to laws we do not make and cannot change all overseen by a foreign court.
“Under the Protocol, Great Britain is regarded as a foreign country when it comes to Northern Ireland. The constitutional vandalism of the Protocol has been exposed in the Court of Appeal with the Court finding and Article VI of the Acts of Union has been “subjugated” by the Protocol.
“It is therefore imperative that the Government acts to restore British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
And this is why the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (Crown, 2022f) was necessary to finesses the relationship between these two EU Member States – Ireland and Northern Ireland – and the third party of Great Britain. However it can reasonably be argued that the status of Northern Ireland vis a vis both the EU and UK is still in flux, and has yet to be finalised.
Figure 1. VIES.
Current post-Brexit Withdrawal Agreement manoeuvres by the DUP arguably have more to do with internal divisions in that party. Electoral arithmetic placed DUP MPs in an unrivalled position to affect the outcome of Brexit negotiations as they held the balance of power at Westminster throughout much of those Brexit negotiations, and they were the only unionist party at Westminster from NI. Meanwhile their NI Assembly MLAs were muted when Sinn Féin withdrew their Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to collapse the Assembly for three years over the ‘RHI scandal’. The DUP’s current predicament over the Protocol is entirely self-inflicted as they were placed in an unrivalled position to directly influence the outcome of Brexit withdrawal negotiations, and the Protocol is their baby.
However, having said all that, there is rarely anything to be gained from merely reciting the hows and whys of the current stalemate affecting both Northern Ireland and Westminster. Westminster? Yes, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak will hope to host the U.S. president, Joe Biden, at an event held next April at Queen’s University Belfast to celebrate or mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the GFBA 1998. For that occasion to be successful, the prime minister needs the NI Assembly and Executive up-and-running. The question begging is will the prime minister square this particular circle in the run up to that event? Moreover, there is some considerable speculation that the Johnson government was merely using the DUP and the NI Protocol as leverage to negotiate better terms for Great Britain with the EU.
At the time of writing the jury is out on that one. But, there might be a route out of this paradox. As a few enlightened NI negotiators understand, including the DUP’s former leader, Peter Robinson, one way to deal with a problem is to broaden it out to include or incorporate a larger slate of contents that might offer up a possible negotiated solution.
Yes, but, what kind of ‘union’, and with whom?
It can reasonably be argued that the current impasse over the NI Protocol is over what kind of union we want to live in, and, as with the GFBA 1998, this is a multi-tiered problem. In this case it encompasses both the European Union (EU), and also the ‘union’ of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as defined by both the GFBA 1998 and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement 2020 and its Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. There is a clear overlap between the two ‘unions’ of the EU and UK, and the Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocol is an attempt to manage that overlap.
It has previously been observed (Mulholland, 2016) that the GFBA 1998 is similar in many to the Nordic Council, which allows for and manages a complex set of interrelationships between its members and the EU. If these Nordic countries can co-exist with the EU and still function as a regional trading and cultural bloc then there appears to be no reason why the nations in Great Britain and Ireland cannot do so also.
The question begging then is, as with the Nordic Council, whether the natural outworking of the GFBA is that the constituent nations of the British-Irish Council all become independent nations, and, those that wish to, also have full or partial membership of the EU as well. From 1998 the Republic of Ireland is one of those independent nations, and it is currently a Member State of the EU as well as a full member of the British-Irish Council (BIC) and Intergovernmental conference. If the Republic of Ireland can walk and chew gum at the same time, i.e. hold full membership of the EU and BIC, then surely Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands can also manage this feat – should they choose to?
And, there’s another important reason for raising these matters here in Polyphony.
White man speaks with forked tongue
Eurosceptics are not a homogenous group. Far from it; they demonstrate a range of knowledge about the EU and UK and it is readily apparent that many simply reflect or parrot the views expressed in whatever media they happen to regularly access. The pros and cons of EU membership were discussed at length in the pages of Poliphony/Politicks over the last thirty-plus years and many of those currently writing for Polyphony took part in these discussions.
However, one of the key challenges facing Eurosceptics in their engagement with the EU is that they argued that, instead of mirroring the United States of America by merging to form the United States of Europe, the EU should function solely or mostly as a trading bloc. Had the UK itself functioned as a simple trading bloc then British prime ministers such as Tony Blair and David Cameron could have used it as an exemplar to make their argument for them. However, instead power in the UK is vested in a centralised Westminster government in which English MPs run roughshod over all of the devolved institutions, and the trading bloc is an irrelevance as England does what it want and the others have to tag along whether it is in their interests or not.
Show, don’t tell
And so if Eurosceptics want to shape and influence the EU then it can be constructively argued that they need to configure the United Kingdom in the image that they want the EU to emulate so that EU Member States can see how it would function, and evaluate the evidence and benefits for themselves. But, the Eurosceptics, who currently dominate the British government, appear to all adrift in the wake of Brexit with no clear road map as to where they’re going.
This is then the immediate challenge facing Eurosceptics and the ERG (European Research Group). The answer may be staring them in the face in the form of the GFBA 1998.
The 25th anniversary of the GFBA will be celebrated during April 2023. Whether the NI Executive and Assembly will be in situ by then is anybody’s guess at the time of writing. If, as argued previously, the GFBA is an Act of Union by another name, then the Republic of Ireland is currently an outlier, i.e. it is both a full Member State of the EU and also a full member of GFBA institutions such as the BIC and Intergovernmental Conference. It is arguably the exemplar par excellence for how this relationship can be successfully managed, i.e. it provides tangible and visible evidence that can be assessed.
Ireland has managed this dual membership adeptly for almost twenty-five years now after the GFBA was agreed. Unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Ireland receives no subvention or support from Westminster. In fact Ireland probably contributes more to the British Exchequer through taxes on trade than do the three devolved nations together. And it runs a budget surplus at the same time as being a net contributor to the EU. In contrast Scotland receives a subvention or block grant of between £35-41 billion depending on what source is referenced, Wales receives £16 billion, and NI £15 billion-odd, which comes to around £70 billion.
Ireland is the exemplar par excellence for how an independent nation can simultaneously be in the BIC – the Union – and at the same time also a full Member State of the EU. If Scotland, Wales and NI could emulate Ireland then it can be strongly argued that England would also benefit immeasurably as well.
Moreover, Northern Ireland is currently situated exactly (Mulholland, 2016) where I anticipated it would be, i.e. an independent Member State of the EU in its own right. The casual reader might dismiss this statement for where NI currently finds itself, but, Jim Allister, the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) leader, confirms this analysis (2022), and validation of this position is also provided by the European Commission (2022). For the last twenty-plus years I have persistently and consistently argued in the Letters pages of the three NI regional newspapers (The Irish News, Belfast Telegraph, and News Letter) that an independent NI is in the best interests of all the people of NI, and for Great Britain as well. And so, it would take little effort for Westminster to work with the EU to complete Northern Ireland’s full transition into a full Member State of the EU in its own right with all the bells and whistles that go with it. This could then, should they wish, provide a template that the Scots and Welsh could apply.
ADDENDUM: Fool’s Gold and the ERG
John Major’s ribs must be sore. The former British prime minister will be forgiven if he fell about laughing as, on Wednesday’s Peston (October 19), former ERG (European Research Group) chairman and current Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Steve Baker, ended his appearance on the live show with a plea for party unity amid growing calls for the prime minister to resign, which she duly did the following day. Those of us of a certain vintage well remember ministers in the Major government vainly appealing to their Eurosceptic party colleagues – the ‘bastards’ – to maintain party unity. And so, when Steve sat there on live television beseeching his party colleagues to show unity, John Major and his put upon party colleagues must have allowed themselves a good old-fashioned belly laugh. What goes around comes around!
And nor do Steve’s woes end there for the previous prime minister, Liz Truss, put him in to bat at the Northern Ireland (NI) Office together with Secretary of State for NI, Chris Heaton-Harris, who is another former chair of the ERG. Had this dynamic duo any self-awareness this would have raised a red flag for them, surely? When the pair were appointed to the Northern Ireland Office it was already apparent that it was at cross-purposes with the DUP. Why? Well, firstly, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the GFBA is next April, and all the parties to that Agreement – the US administration, the EU, the Irish Government, and many in the British government – are expecting to mark this important milestone with all its component parts fully functioning, and especially the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. At the time of writing, responsibility for Stormont’s restitution lies entirely upon the shoulders of Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker. Secondly, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) lost the May 2022 Assembly elections to Sinn Féin, which has nominated a First Minister. However, the DUP are blocking the formation of a NI Executive by refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minister. The DUP’s stated reason for refusing to nominate is that they object to the NI Protocol, which they were instrumental in negotiating.
It can be argued that these positions reflect two apposite post-Brexit views held by Conservative MPs and the wider British body politic.
- ERG world view: the Protocol is scrapped and NI joins GB in a full-fledged hard Brexit to full-throated roars of “huzzah!” and much slapping of desk tops by the ERG. This world view has support in Westminster of the ERG and DUP, and outside Westminster of Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage.
- Alternative world view: GB instead joins NI to avail of its beneficial trade terms with the EU in the Single Market. This world view probably has support at Westminster from the majority of MPs in the Conservative Party, Labour, SNP, LibDems and others.
It can be constructively argued that Steve, and his colleagues in the ERG, have entirely misread the unfolding scenario vis a vis the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. On Sunday (October 23) Steve doubled down on his rhetoric as he confidently asserted that there would be no celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the GFBA 1998 until “the legitimate interest of Unionists […] to end the jurisdiction of EU law in Northern Ireland” is met. He went further, and confidently asserted that unless Unionist demands were met the ERG “Eurosceptics would implode the government”.
There are at least two problems with Steve’s interpretation of events.
Firstly, Eurosceptics have now had six years from the 2016 referendum on membership of the EU in which to demonstrate to the British electorate that their vision of Brexit can be successfully delivered. GB now has a16% trade deficit with the EU and it appears to be getting worse. Trade deals with non-EU states or trading blocs have been all but non-existent. Given historic links between the Tories and the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) an appropriate means of measuring Eurosceptic performance after the Brexit referendum would be Sterling’s performance against both the US Dollar and Euro (Figure 1). The former is currently 1.13 and the latter 1.14. To be fair, these historic lows against both currencies have been there from the Conservative Party took over from the Blair-Brown government, and have stubbornly refused to improve. And so, whereas in the recent contests to lead the Conservative Party they have regaled the media with tales of how the Conservative Party is trusted on the economy, the available economic evidence is that the party is not trusted at all by the markets.
In short, Steve’s ERG has failed to deliver the promised land, and instead found only Fool’s Gold.
Figure 1. GBP against US Dollar and Euro from 2000 (Bank of England, 2022a and b).
Secondly, the ERG seem to think that the outworking of the current impasse at Stormont will be resolved by Northern Ireland adopting the same Brexit Withdrawal terms as Great Britain. However, both the United States and the European Union, the two most powerful political, military and economic powers on the planet, have told successive British governments that the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement (GFBA) is sacrosanct, and have made it known that the NI Protocol Bill currently passing through Parliament is in breach of both the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the GFBA. Given their current economic woes, the British government can ill afford a trade war with the EU and everyone knows that. The British government will almost certainly have to back down.
While Steve’s opinion on how to resolve the current impasse at Stormont may appear eminently sensible to the ERG, it can instead be argued that the easiest and simplest way to resolve both the Stormont impasse and also Westminster’s woeful economic performance is for Great Britain to adopt the same Brexit Withdrawal terms with the EU that Northern Ireland has. This would immediately resolve the East-West trade barrier in the Irish Sea and, as GB would be subject to EU law, also remove Unionist’s objections to being treated differently from GB.
It can be argued that Liz Truss’s Bill to neuter the NI Protocol should just be binned by the government, and they should start negotiations with the EU all over again with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight. The newly-minted British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has a far better understanding of the economic situation than did any of his recent predecessors, and, instead of being hamstrung by a poorly conceived Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, could be expected to negotiate a more equitable settlement.
Whilst the aforementioned analysis is by far the most credible solution to the Brexit omnishambles delivered by the ERG, it must be noted here that throughout the 90s and into the 21st century my own views were decidedly Eurosceptic, and so also were my contributions to Poliphony. In other words, I have some sympathy for the ERG worldview. More than that, I also arguably have the solutions they need to turn events around at a rapid pace.
However, these come at a cost:
1. Fee £100 million after taxes: Brexiteers have singularly failed to strike post-Brexit trade deals. There is arguably a relatively simple fix that could see the UK, or GB, rapidly secure specific trade deals that would speedily and positively impact GDP. Consider this the entree, i.e. a quick fix that sets the stage for part 2.
2. Fee £10 billion after taxes: £trillion, £trillion, £trillion, £trillion, and another £trillion. Two of these may appear over-egged, but one suspects not. Ambitious? Of course, but arguably relatively easy to implement, and at pace – to borrow a term much-beloved by the Civil Service these days. A freebie was already posted in letter to the Belfast Telegraph that argued for a 15-mile wide causeway or isthmus to be constructed across the Irish Sea between GB and Ireland so as to create two back-to-back deep water harbours on a scale of two Shanghai ports. While a 15-mile wide causeway appears ambitious, firstly, the land that forms this connection would probably become the most valuable property on the planet, secondly, when two separate port infrastructures are taken into consideration this might have to be enlarged, and thirdly, GB-Ireland infrastructure would almost certainly be added to the equation once the ramifications sink in. Ideally to run from Preston to Drogheda at the widest point so that the tidal forces either side of the causeway are manageable, and to maximise the land value. But, if the Irish government is not interested, then from Preston to the Isle of Man, if they agree, and on to Northern Ireland.
These two interdictions are obviously the inane ramblings of a madman. And yet, through a series of interventions, which are in the public domain, I have arguably changed the political, economic and military landscape around us, i.e. there is ample evidence that I have delivered. Moreover, there is no expectation that these will be taken up. Instead the expectation is that the ERG will be purged from the Conservative Party, and Steve’s frequent appearances in the media are the prelude to join Nigel Farage in a new career on chat shows.
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