We are approaching a significant milestone for our country. This year, we will mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It has given Northern Ireland a time of peace and prosperity that many during the Troubles couldn’t begin to imagine possible.
The hope that the Agreement represented continues to hold the fabric of society and politics in Northern Ireland together today. Which is why, this year, the framework that the Agreement put in place must be restored. As part of that effort, the Government will again have to decide when – indeed whether – to call an election to try to restore the Executive.
It was right that the Government postponed the elections at the end of last year and laid legislation to do the same last week. It is difficult to see how the paralysis could be broken by holding new elections. The impasse that led to the collapse of Stormont in early 2022 has not been resolved since the issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol remain. To think otherwise is to be in denial.
Even if the EU and UK can agree what they feel is a sensible and balanced settlement, it does not necessarily mean that the Unionist community or, more pertinently, the DUP would accept it. Any deal that does not directly address the issues raised by Unionists will not restore Stormont. The DUP will have no incentive to return, the stasis will continue and a key strand of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement will remain broken.
It would be all too easy to make the argument that the Agreement has not been a true success. After all, at the time of writing, its three key strands are under threat – fraying, if not outright broken. North-South ministerial councils are not meeting, East-West trade is not flowing as it should and Stormont is not sitting. It is obvious that the crux of the issue, and the restoration of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, rests on the operation of the Protocol. It would be foolish to hold elections when that remains unresolved. It risks polarising the parties further, entrenching them in their positions, shouting louder at the echo chambers of their fairly narrow but ardent bases of support.
We have to remember, too, that Sinn Fein didn't increase its vote in the last elections, which I called as Secretary of State in May 2022. The party managed to hold its seats because of the split in the vote among Unionist parties. The growing Alliance vote meant that the DUP also haemorrhaged seats, losing its position as the largest party and their right to nominate the First Minister. Latest polling indicates Alliance Party support continues to grow.
In any new election, the DUP will be looking to reverse that position and will want to broaden its appeal among anti-EU Unionist voters as well as more moderate members of the Unionist community. Similarly, Sinn Fein will want to build on its hold in May 2022 to seek a true advantage. None of these scenarios would be positive for people or politics in Northern Ireland.
But the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has not been a failure. Indeed, despite this difficult political backdrop, we should make space and time to celebrate it and all that it has meant to the people of Northern Ireland. It has led to relative peace and stability, allowing society to move forward from the tragedy and violence that plagued it for decades. Northern Ireland also has amazing economic potential and has already seen fantastic improvements since 1998. Belfast is flourishing and amazing work is being done in cyber, advanced engineering, quantum computing and AI.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was, however, written in such a way that it could evolve. We must be honest about the fact that it was a brilliant framework for peace but is proving a poor foundation for effective government. The question we must dare to ask ourselves is: what next? How can the Agreement be evolved to better support effective and resilient government for all the people of Northern Ireland? How must the structure of Stormont be reinforced so that it is not so fragile? People deserve accountable politicians and a resilient local government that is able to deliver on the issues that matter to them, rather than the sporadic governance of recent years.
It is time for us to confront difficult questions about whether the electoral system in Northern Ireland properly reflects the people and communities it is designed to serve. The growth in the vote for Alliance underlines the feeling that many more people now want to vote on issues, not on sectarian lines. That should be embraced as the greatest success of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. But if the Agreement does not evolve further, under current rules, if Alliance and its vote share continues to grow, it will never have the right to nominate the First or Deputy First Minister. Democracy cannot succeed when it is set in tram lines that can never cross.
Yet all these questions must wait. It is difficult to see how we can dedicate efforts to those challenging conversations when the key issue at the heart of Stormont’s current impasse remains. Yet have those conversations this year we must. It is vital for the future of our UK, and for all of us who care so passionately about Northern Ireland’s place within it.
This article first appeared as an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on 20th February 2023
Photo: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tim Hammond/No 10 Downing Street