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The border is back
The pinned tweet from the Twitter account of The Irish Border shows a photo of a negotiating session with an elephant seated rather conspicuously in the background. “There’s me at the Brexit negotiations!” the border tweeted.
The border – or the threat of it – is back and is indeed the elephant in the room. The Agreement, after all, was supposed to bracket the constitutional question. Under the shadow of Brexit and with the power-sharing institutions suspended, how ought we to understand the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement?
To start, it is worth acknowledging that the signing of the Agreement turned the adage that Northern Ireland is a ‘problem without a solution’ on its head. The Agreement stands – even today – as a potent symbol that political change is possible even in seemingly intractable circumstances. In recognizing the need not only for British-Irish cooperation but also for the sharing of power between unionists and nationalists, real progress has been possible: Decommissioning of weapons. Devolution of justice. A more inclusive police service. Institutional reforms. A decade of uninterrupted power-sharing led by the DUP and Sinn Féin. All of these were once unthinkable. None of it comes intuitively.
While the problem may have a solution, it is not enough on its own. As grueling as it was getting to the Agreement, it was only just the beginning. As Seamus Mallon, former deputy First Minister, notes in relation to the work of the Agreement, ‘it hasn’t yet really begun’.A power-sharing deal has to be adaptable, not just adoptable. Three implications follow.
First, it is easy to fall back on old habits when faced with uncertainty. The Agreement represents a particular moment in time and cannot be expected to anticipate all new political developments. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to expect some resilience in the face of change, whether internal, such as generational turnover in political parties, or external, such as Brexit. A strategy of ‘institutional tinkering’, which can respond to changing circumstances while keeping to the spirit of the original Agreement, is one way to go and has already proven amenable in Northern Ireland.
The second concerns who sits at the power-sharing table. Power-sharing is intended to be widely inclusive. Over the last 20 years the understanding of whoshares power, however, has now narrowed to the ‘big two’. Polarized as the DUP and Sinn Féin are on a number of issues spanning the political spectrum and extending beyond the ethnonational divide – Brexit, marriage equality, welfare reform, and, most recently, the Irish language – compromise of any sort has proven difficult. Returning to a grand coalition of all parties may reset negotiation dynamics, offering new opportunities for cooperation.
Finally, a long-term power-sharing strategy also has to see beyond the conflict paradigm and recognize that the language of ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ is not the only way people make meaning in their lives. For some voters the terms do not resonate, whether because they seek to bridge or transcend these categories in the political process, because they are part of the growing segment of the population not party to either tradition, or because they seek political participation on the basis of another aspect of their identity, such as gender or sexuality, often because that identity has been excluded or marginalised from political life. If the goal of power-sharing is to eventually render itself ‘superfluous’ then it also has to plan for that day. This means designing liberal power-sharing institutions, not corporate ones, as well as building in and implementing institutional safeguards – such as a Bill of Rights – for all citizens. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions, as recent debates on racism, marriage equality and reproductive rights suggest, still have some way to go.
The 20th anniversary is a fitting time to reflect on the Agreement’s many accomplishments precisely when so much of its work is being called into doubt. As the pinned tweet on The Good Friday Agreement’s Twitter account (yes, it too is on Twitter) suggests, #WeNeedTheGFA. While true, we also need to think about who still needs a seat at the table and how best they can get there.
Allison McCulloch is an associate professor at Brandon University.