Yesterday marks (just about) the two-decade anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, more widely known by its Republican-preferred name: the Good Friday Agreement.
The Agreement, as we shall call it henceforth, has been thrust under the spotlight following both the Brexit vote, with its implications for the border with Ireland, and the not-unrelated collapse of the devolved legislature in early 2017.
It’s inauspicious that the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the power-sharing Executive drawn from it, isn’t even sitting to celebrate the twentieth birthday of the treaty which created them.
To be fair, many of the problems with the current devolution arrangements actually stem from the 2007 St Andrews Agreement, especially the rules change which meant that the largest party, rather than the largest ‘side’, got to nominate the First Minister. This allowed the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein to squeeze the smaller parties and deepened the polarisation of the Assembly.
Nonetheless, the aura of sanctity that surrounds the Agreement – which I have written on previously – does have an unfortunate habit of short-circuiting debates about whether or not devolution to Northern Ireland has really worked, at least in its present basic shape.
The British Government is manifestly reluctant to introduce direct rule, even though there is no sign that the Assembly will be back on its feet anytime soon. This is problematic: not only is it poor democratic practice to have a part of the country run day-to-day by the civil service without political oversight, but there are serious flaws in how Westminster is currently legislating on Ulster issues.
Worse still, evidence presented to the ongoing inquiry into the ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ scandal which brought down the Executive suggests that the small Northern Irish civil service is simply not capable of properly administering the huge range of powers heaped on its shoulders by London. The Province has perhaps the most extensive ranged of devolved powers in the UK, but is drawing on a pool not much larger than a big English county.
This suggests that even if a political deal to restore the Assembly could be struck tomorrow, deep-seated problems with the entire system would remain. And that’s before considering the fact that any deal would, history suggests, not provide stability for long.
After a year of suspension, preceded by years of near-constant crisis over one issue or another, it seems clear that Ulster’s devolution arrangements might benefit from a wholesale re-assessment, perhaps with Westminster retaking some of the more onerous powers and the establishment of two or more smaller, local bodies to administer devolution.
In an interesting coincidence, yesterday also marked the 39-year anniversary of the assassination of Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher’s Shadow Northern Irish Secretary, by the INLA in 1979.
Somewhat shamefully the Tories allowed his proposal for restoring local government to Ulster – reviving the county councils, or some variant thereupon – to die with him. But Lord Lexden, the Conservatives’ official historian and writer for this site, has disinterred them as a possible alternative to Stormont.
But with the basic shape of the devolved settlement enshrined in the Agreement, and thus taking on some of the characteristics of holy writ, any such exercise seems unlikely.