As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Conor J. Kelly highlights how its ‘three strands’ can help manage the different sets of relationships across these islands.
Despite the challenges posed by Brexit, including the frayed relations between London and Dublin and the political turmoil in Northern Ireland itself, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) next month is a cause for celebration. The Agreement ushered in an era of cooperation between these two islands and between Northern Ireland’s communities that would have been unthinkable before it. Those relationships, though often strained in the 25 years since 1998, have been the bedrock of the social transformation of Northern Ireland.
As we approach the anniversary, attention will be fixed on efforts to restore the Assembly and Executive at Stormont. They have been on ice since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew from the power-sharing institutions last year in opposition to the Protocol arrangements negotiated between the Johnson government and the EU. The attention on keeping Stormont running is, unfortunately, not new, and has characterised politics in Northern Ireland on many occasions since 1998.
This focus, though understandable, arguably masks the significance of the other political relationships the B/GFA sought to deal with. In it, Stormont’s power-sharing institutions, bringing together unionists and nationalists, are referred to as ‘strand one’, alongside two other strands which sought to manage relations between the North and South of the island of Ireland (‘strand two’), and between Ireland and Great Britain/the UK (‘strand three’) respectively.
The three strands are described as ‘interlocking and interdependent’ in the text of the Agreement. The balance was created to deal with key peace process architect John Hume’s view that the divisions in Northern Ireland could only be addressed through managing the ‘totality of relations’ that exist across these two islands.
Despite the significance the Agreement gives to these different strands, in a series of recent focus groups run by the UCL Constitution Unit there was low public awareness of what the institutions created to manage them actually do.
This lack of awareness at the societal level reflects the reality of how the bodies have functioned since 1998. Both the second and third strands of the Agreement have a mixed record of delivery. Strand two’s core institution is a North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which brings the administrations on either side of the border together to cooperate on matters of mutual interest (including managing some EU funding streams). The frequent collapse of Stormont has meant that this body has also often been unable to function for long periods since 1998.
What’s more, there have been several times when unionists have boycotted the body even when Stormont was up and running. Indeed, the DUP began a boycott of the NSMC shortly before the current stalemate at Stormont began.
Strand three, meanwhile, has two core institutions. The first is the British Irish Council (BIC), which brings together the governments of the UK and Ireland, the devolved administrations in Belfast, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, along with representatives from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
Though it is mandated to meet every six months, it has been seen as a talking shop, despite the development of the devolved administration’s competencies since the Agreement was signed. That being said, last year, Rishi Sunak became the first Prime Minister since Gordon Brown to attend a BIC meeting, perhaps signalling an attempt to give it more prominence.
The other institution in strand three is the British Irish Intergovernmental Council (BIIGC). This body brings the two governments together, building on their bilateral work during the peace process. The record here is also decisively mixed. Though it has at times managed to fulfil its mandate and give the Irish government a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland, there have been long periods where it was not convened (including between 2007 and 2018, despite the clear challenges of Brexit). This was apparently at least in part to avoid upsetting unionists who are sceptical of Dublin having undue influence in the governance of Northern Ireland.
That being said, many have been encouraged recently as the BIIGC’s regular use has returned. Several high-profile bilateral meetings between London and Dublin, including through the BIIGC, have taken place in recent months. This arguably expanded the political space that facilitated a negotiated settlement between Brussels and London on the Protocol in the form of the newly announced Windsor Framework, which attempts to deal with unionist opposition to the Protocol in an agreed way (as opposed to the UK government’s threat of unilateral action via the Protocol Bill – which has now been shelved).
UK-EU level negotiations took place against the backdrop of a noticeable thawing of relations between Dublin and London, which have been frosty since 2016. Remarkably, this thawing in the Dublin-London relationship has occurred under the stewardship of two ERG veterans, the Northern Ireland Office ministers Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker.
That point, and the very fact that the EU and London have been able to come to a compromise on the Protocol, underscores the need for the types of bilateral and multilateral cooperation mandated by the B/GFA.
The DUP are consulting with their members and have sent somewhat mixed signals over whether the Windsor Framework will lead to their return to Stormont. But progress has undoubtably been made in recent weeks, which highlights how the governments can use the Agreement’s other strands to steer actors away from crisis and towards mutually beneficial outcomes.
Indeed, if both unionism and the two governments recommit to regular use of strands two and three it could have potential benefits for all parties, including further routes for Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to influence the implementation of the Protocol. If those institutions are used creatively, they can play important roles in managing the wider post-Brexit context.
Regardless of whether the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly are back up and running again, politicians should not allow the other institutions created by the Agreement to be side-lined when the anniversary celebrations end. More issues will inevitably arise in the course of managing the UK’s departure from the EU – and there are other issues where cooperation and dialogue are necessary, including London’s proposals to deal with the legacy of the conflict (opposed by every party in Northern Ireland, the Dublin government, and Amnesty International).
As we celebrate the Agreement’s 25th anniversary this April we should recall the three-strand logic at the heart of it. Otherwise, there is a risk of once again neglecting to deal with the totality of relations that exist across these islands.
By Conor J. Kelly, PhD Candidate, Birkbeck College and Research & Teaching Assistant, University College London (UCL).
This blog draws on an article co-authored with Dr Etain Tannam which was published in The Political Quarterly.