While the overwhelming majority of Irish Nationalists backed the Belfast Agreement, when it was reached in 1998, a substantial minority of Ulster Unionists did not. The 29 per cent of voters who voted against it in a referendum were mostly drawn from the latter. The Democratic Unionist Party, now a custodian of the agreement, opposed it at the time. It propelled Arlene Foster, now the party’s leader, into its ranks: she was previously a member of the Ulster Unionists. Jeffrey Donaldson, now a DUP MP, made the same journey. In particular, both found the early release from prison of convicted IRA terrorists a compromise too far.
This Unionist dissatisfaction with the Agreement, or at least with aspects of it, is now returning to haunt Northern Ireland. The strand in Unionism that favours integration was especially unhappy from the start with what is effectively devolved government by means of enforced coalition. As the Ulster Unionists were replaced by the DUP as unionism’s leading party, and the SDLP were displaced by Sinn Fein, those critics argued that their point was proven – that the fruit of the agreement was a sectarian carve-up of the province by religious bigots and terrorist supporters. This critique missed the development of the DUP into a party with a more secular flavour, and the emergence of a post-Troubles generation of Sinn Finn politicians.
But whether you agree with it or not, the show went on – and on. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness replaced David Trimble and Seamus Mallon. McGuinness had an excellent relationship with Paisley and a workable one with the latter’s replacement, Peter Robinson. He didn’t hit it off so well with Foster, and by the time of his illness Sinn Fein’s attitude to working with the DUP was hardening, as were its positions on the Irish language and legacy issues. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal might not have collapsed the Executive had its governing partners not moved apart. James Brokenshire was unable to help manoeuvre it back together again. Karen Bradley has been no more successful to date. A visit from the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last week made no difference.
In short, the structural weaknesses in the agreement have returned to haunt it, at least as far as some Unionists are concerned. Some of them never cared for the forced power-sharing arrangement. Others say that the weakness inherent within the agreement is now evident, because it is no longer providing Northern Ireland with workable government at all, however unsatisfactory: Foster and her party are now calling for direct rule from Westminster. Others still resent the Irish Government’s reading of the agreement in the context of Brexit – distancing themselves from it emotionally even as they dispute Dublin’s interpretation factually. And many Unionists have never cared for the way in which the Belfast Agreement, to give it the proper title, has morphed linguistically, especially among Nationalists, into the Good Friday Agreement, whereby it is lent a kind of religious sanction. They hear overtones of the Easter Rising.
It is tempting to seek to tear the whole structure up, and replace it with more conventional arrangements. Margaret Thatcher once said that Northern Ireland is “as British as Finchley”. Quite so (although its membership of the Union has long been viewed as dependent upon the verdict of its people on the matter). But it doesn’t follow that it should be governed in the same way as Finchley, or even Edinburgh and Cardiff, with their own different devolutionary settlements. The judgement among Unionists must be whether Northern Ireland is so exceptional – so scarred by sectarian politics, the legacy of terror, and its peculiar history – that more conventional politics cannot apply, at least yet.
There is a strain in the Conservative Party that resists this verdict. Hence the vocal support in much of it for standing candidates in Northern Ireland. If more effort and resources had been put into backing those that stand, the province might be a better place today. But election results there tell an emphatic story – one of a Unionist party dominating the east and north of the province, and a Republican one holding much of the west and south.
To adapt Rab Butler, the Belfast Agreement is the best agreement we’ve got – the only practicable means to hand of holding these tensions in check, and giving the province something approaching normalcy. Those keen on regulatory divergence from the EU should note that it also provides the institutional framework, under the terms of paragraph 50 of the deal that Theresa May signed up to pre-Christmas, for achieving that end.
All of this is not to say that the Government should hold off direct rule, however unpopular a return to it would be in Dublin. Northern Ireland cannot simply be left to drift in limbo. Sinn Fein lined up behind the agreement long before the DUP (which was only reconciled to it by the later St Andrew’s Agreement). It is an irony that they themselves are making it inoperable.