The Good Friday Agreement

Alison McCartney

Originally published in 1998/1999, Issue 1

The current political climate in the United Kingdom is very much of devolution to regional governments, whether it is in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or even in England.  The process of devolution in Northern Ireland has emerged from a very delicate situation and the Good Friday Agreement would appear to be one last, desperate attempt to solve or at least relieve the terrible situation.

The Good Friday Agreement has come to signify a glimmer of hope for Northern Ireland, in that compromise was certainly the order of the day, for every party involved.

To fully understand the implications of the Good Friday Agreement, one must realise the nature of the Northern Irish problem.  Northern Ireland has been a bi-confessional society for a very long time and therefore political beliefs are aligned along religious and ethno-nationalist grounds.Unfortunately, socio-economics has very little to do with affiliations.  It has previously been the reluctance of these two confessions to compromise their visions, that has led to the failure of previous attempts at regional government and it is the presence of compromise and accommodation that makes the Good Friday Agreement such a strong document.

However, without seeming to tempt fate, one must be aware that although the Agreement has is basically a strong document, it has some inherent weaknesses, which may affect its potential success.  One of the things that makes the Good Friday Agreement a fundamentally robust document is that it ensures that the New Northern Ireland Assembly is fully representative of all sections of society and no one section has the ability to manipulate the business of the Assembly.  The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights is extremely important to the working of a power sharing government because it protects the rights of minorities which may have been ignored in an ethnic democracy.  With this great emphasis on human rights, there is a danger that ‘Individual’ rights may be substituted for ‘group’ rights.  This would give groups such as Unionists and Nationalists, an institutional backing and further entrench the sectarian divisions Northern Ireland has known for so long.  Sectarianism is further entrenched ‘In the New Northern Ireland Assembly with the insistence of the Good Friday Agreement that each party designate themselves Unionist or Nationalist according to their aims.

Will a government ever exist in Northern Ireland where parties are elected on their socio-economic policies, like our Irish and British Counterparts, and not on their religious or ethnic affiliations? Another factor, which strengthens the Good Friday Agreement, is the overwhelming support it received from the people of Northern Ireland.  The proposal of power sharing executive in 1973 and the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982 were not put to the people in a referendum, but were initiatives of the then Secretaries of State.  It is doubtful if we will ever know if the two previous governments would have had the support of the people.  Therefore every Assembly Member in Stormont today knows that he/she has the full commitment of the people of Northern Ireland, which gives much more legitimacy to their task.

However, the support of the people will not guarantee the success of the Assembly.  This will be determined by the party’s willingness to co-operate in the Executive of the Assembly.  Rather than allowing the Executive to form voluntarily when a certain level of cooperation can be reached, it is imposed as an integral part of the Agreement.  The problem with this is becoming evident now, with the insistence of the Unionist parties that paramilitary decommissioning as a precondition for the formation of the Executive.

Another question of the new power sharing Assembly is whether the prevalence of moderate and centre politics can be maintained.  The Ulster Unionist Party could be called one such moderate party.  It is well known that David Trimble had to work extremely hard to get a majority in his party to support the Good Friday Agreement.  This majority is becoming more and more precarious and if David Trimble loses even one or two of his supporters to more extreme parties, then he will no longer hold a moderate majority.  The unionist spectrum of the Assembly will then be in the hands of ‘No’ extremists.  Although it may seem a small point, David Trimble and the internal split in Unionism is posing a serious threat to the running of the New Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Good Friday Agreement represents difference goals for different parties and this difference has the potential to cause trouble in the long term.  Unionists hope the Good Friday Agreement will finally enshrine the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.  In a way the Agreement satisfies this aim, in that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom until a majority of its citizens decide otherwise.  Nationalists on the other hand, believe the Irish dimension to the Agreement, namely, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British/Irish Council, will ultimately lead to a United Ireland.  The conflict of interests will certainly raise itself after the ‘honeymoon period’ has ended.  People in Northern Ireland have thought that the Good Friday Agreement was the ultimate compromise and that as long as it was adhered to, the problems of Northern Ireland could be solved.  This is not the case because the reason Northern Ireland has a conflict is because it is a divided/sectarian society.  Therefore, the only form of government which could work and manage these divisions is power sharing, because it protects the rights of minorities.  Surely, the desired scenario should be when governments are elected on socio-economic politics and not how they view the geographical future of Northern Ireland or religion.  If sectarianism could be lessened or even obliterated in Northern Ireland there would be no need for a power sharing government because there would be no majority/minority groups that needed abridging/ protecting.

It is with relation to this point that I believe the greatest deficiency in the Good Friday Agreement lies.  It is only conflict management and not conflict resolution.  However, its significance must not be diminished as it represents the first and most difficult step in the creation of a non-sectarian society for Northern Ireland.  Let us only hope that the air of compromise continues through the New Northern Ireland Assembly because if it does, the Good Friday Agreement, despite its weaknesses has the potential to save as many lives in the future, as have been lost in Northern Ireland’s black past.