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No new Good Friday Agreement, but hoping for an Easter resurrection in Northern Ireland
Talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland ended yesterday without agreement. Though they are due to resume after the Easter break, it is quite telling that, almost twenty years on from the historic breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), there will be no repeat of the efforts made back then by the relevant parties to continue talking into the holiday period. If anything, it is clear that these parties now need a holiday from each other. This is not good news for a political settlement predicated on the ability of rival nationalist and unionist politicians to co-operate in the governance of Northern Ireland, and indeed all reports coming out of the talks suggest that there is simply a lack of will to compromise between the key protagonists, Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Sinn Féin feels that the previous understandings of the peace process are not being honoured by unionists or by the British government. Primarily this relates to two issues – language rights, and efforts to deal with the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Firstly, Sinn Féin is insisting on legislation to protect and promote the Irish language, an important feature of cultural identity for many nationalists. Secondly, it is demanding that the British government do more to address the issue of state killings in the past conflict. The latter clearly requires more engagement from London, and arguably input from Dublin, too. However, understandably, unionists feel that Sinn Féin is being one-sided in emphasising state killings in Northern Ireland, and wonder if republicans will show similar accountability for their violent past. Less understandably, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has wholesale rejected Sinn Féin’s other key demand, an Irish language act.
Foster’s obstinacy here is supported by those unionists who feel the peace process has involved continual concessions to nationalists. In one sense, such perceptions are quite legitimate – on many issues, unionists have been forced to give way, be it restrictions on Orange Order marches in nationalist areas, or the flying of the Union flag over Belfast’s City Hall. However, it must be remembered that such concessions result from the fact that unionists once enjoyed complete dominance in Northern Ireland, choosing to parade whosesoever they chose, or calling on an overwhelmingly Protestant police force to enforce previous legislation that effectively banned the Irish tricolor from display anywhere Northern Ireland. The peace process was bound to change such practices, but unionists were meant to be reassured that on the most important matter of all, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the GFA secured the link with Britain – nationalists accepting that this could not change without majority consent.
This brings us to the subject still underlying all division in Northern Ireland – the political future of the region. In the GFA, unionists felt they were guaranteeing that Northern Ireland would remain British. However, nationalists believed the deal ensured that Northern Ireland would no longer be singularly British, with the Agreement recognising “the birthright of all … to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”.
Nationalists are right that the GFA guarantees “parity of esteem” for the two main communities in Northern Ireland – not just practically, in terms of socio-economic equality, and political power-sharing, but also with regards cultural rights and identity. The means the right to be Irish in their own country, just as unionists have the right to be British in their own country. Socio-economic equality and power-sharing clearly have been accepted by most unionists, but some are finding it harder to accept the powerful symbolic changes relating to identity rights – the idea that the Irish language is as legitimate as English, or nationalist suggestions that the tricolour should fly alongside the Union flag over public buildings in Northern Ireland. However, unionists should remember that such powerful symbolic changes have helped nationalists to acquiesce in the Union – unionists’ key goal. Indeed, surveys conducted throughout the peace process have shown a continual falling off in nationalist support for a united Ireland.
Nationalists are more willing to accept the constitutional status quo, not only because they no longer face discrimination in the allocation of jobs and housing, but also because Northern Ireland is becoming more accommodating of Irish national and cultural identity. Nationalists are more accepting of the Northern Ireland state because it no longer exists in an exclusively British constitutional context, with the Irish government now acting alongside London as guarantor of the GFA and the rights enshrined therein. Unionists, in turn, need to accept that this is the price of a stable Union – that this Union will be less overtly British, and indeed more binational in its symbolic as well as its practical manifestations.
Of course, Brexit threatens to complicate this debate and reignite the dormant constitutional question. Sinn Féin now insists that the vote of a majority in Northern Ireland to stay in the EU means that the British government’s determination otherwise undermines local democracy – and from Sinn Féin’s perspective subverts democracy across the whole of Ireland. To explain, Sinn Féin cites the 1998 vote on the GFA, which involved simultaneous polls on either side of the Irish border as a means to express self-determination for people in both parts of the island – the nationalist argument being that Irish self-determination had been denied since Westminster’s partition of Ireland in 1920-21. The dual-referenda of 1998 could be seen as the people of Ireland accepting – rather than the British government decreeing – the continued partition of the island, but doing so on the condition of full equality in Northern Ireland as envisaged by the GFA. Moreover, the provisions of the same accord were devised on the assumption of EU membership for both parts of Ireland, making the border less relevant in terms of everything from security co-operation to free trade. Brexit poses a threat to all of this – hence Sinn Féin’s call for a new poll on the border.
The timing of this call is entirely unhelpful, not only feeding unionist distrust, but distracting from the important issues of equality – including provision for gay marriage in Northern Ireland – that Sinn Féin advocates. Moreover, many nationalists in Northern Ireland, and certainly a majority of voters overall, would currently question the wisdom of voting for Irish reunification – despite the deep misgivings regards Brexit. Indeed, any significant shift in opinion would likely come further down the line – when the Brexit talks have outlined new arrangements for the border, and the longer term and particularly economic implications of these for both parts of Ireland become clearer. Then a more constructive and informed debate with unionists about their future relationship with Britain, and perhaps a more advanced relationship with their southern neighbours in the interests of both parties, might be possible.
More immediately, we can only hope that the Easter break heralds a resurrection of political as well as the religious faith, and a renewed commitment by all parties to the principles and spirit of the GFA – political compromise, full equality, and mutual respect. An appearance at the talks by Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny would also help. As well as focusing minds on both sides here, it would be quite appropriate for London and Dublin to become more involved in the effort to resolve our conflicted past, and address our challenging future. For Brexit threatens stability right across these islands, but perhaps most dramatically in Northern Ireland, and on what will become a border not only between two states, but also between the UK the EU. It is time our parties and our premiers started planning how we deal with the formidable challenges this presents.
Peter McLoughlin is Lecturer in Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. He has published widely on the subject of the Northern Ireland conflict and peace process, most notably with his book on the Nobel Peace Prize winner, John Hume - John Hume and the Revision of Irish Nationalism (Manchester University Press: 2010).
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