When Tony Blair said he felt the hand of history on his shoulder in Belfast in 1998, he wasn’t faking it. Irish history has been rich with lessons proving Orwell’s maxim that “no-one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” An Agreement rooted in “partnership, equality and mutual respect” has always tottered between miracle and absurdity.
The doubters can rely on centuries of zero-sum games requiring clear victors and vanquished. Yet although Northern Ireland was intended as a British-Protestant redoubt against Irish-Catholic nationalism, it was always a vulnerable bastion, where hostility and insecurity spawned eternal vigilance and unending suspicion, because a large and resentful Catholic minority was stranded as unequal citizens inside its walls.
By 1985, the UK and Ireland had embarked on a historically unprecedented collective ‘problem-solving’ exercise, where ending killing in Northern Ireland took precedence over any historic territorial claims. Eventually, for reasons ranging from strategic calculation to emotional exhaustion, the governments and their international allies had persuaded all but the most recalcitrant that power-sharing was preferable to endless conflict, without prospect of relief or victory.
While there was a referendum on the 1998 changes to the constitution in Ireland, there was much less attention paid to the implications of the Belfast Agreement for the constitution of the UK
The road was not smooth. It took two bites of the cherry before the IRA went on permanent ceasefire. Many Unionists declared negotiations with ‘terrorists’ unacceptable in any case. And there was no obvious design blueprint for a shared society like Northern Ireland to take off the shelf from anywhere. But after months of negotiations, the Agreement signed on Good Friday in 1998 emerged as a complex ecosystem of interconnected institutions, principles, commitments and concessions which could be sold as a “new beginning” to both Unionists and Nationalists.
The ecosystem encompassed genuinely historic shifts: the end of legitimacy for violence, nationalist consent for British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, the end of Unionist majority-rule, the release of paramilitary prisoners and radical reform of policing. While there was a referendum on changes to the constitution in Ireland, there was much less attention paid to the implications of the Agreement for the constitution of the UK. There was no British debate about the implications of replacing the sovereignty of parliament with self-determination in Northern Ireland, or of treaty commitments to human rights and parity of cultural esteem between Unionist and Nationalism, to institutionalised cross-border bodies with authority on sovereign territory and to the right of everyone in Northern Ireland to be “Irish or British or both, as they may choose.”
Reconciliation remained both essential and elusive. For years, the fragile institutions of the Agreement were undermined by recurring Unionist-Nationalist suspicion and hostility in Belfast. But Brexit was in its own league. This time the break was between London and Dublin, with the Northern Ireland parties acting initially as observers. But without the insurance of inter-governmental mediation, there was nobody to resolve crises in Belfast. So when the Assembly collapsed in 2017, Northern Ireland was cast adrift, pending a resolution of EU withdrawal negotiations.
"Perhaps the cause for optimism is the threat of further failure. It seems unlikely that the Northern Ireland institutions could retain credibility through another prolonged period of forced inactivity."
Out of the fog, the Agreement with its collaborative treaty obligations, human rights commitments and cross-border design emerged as by far the greatest obstacle to the clean-break from Brussels so treasured by the Brexiteers. And if Northern Ireland was domestically irrelevant, it was diplomatically crucial. As it became clear that the fabric of the Agreement would tear without special arrangements for Northern Ireland, Unionists, by now cheerleaders for a hard Brexit, were unceremoniously abandoned by their erstwhile allies at Westminster. In place of the EU’s open borders, the British Government agreed to a Protocol whereby Northern Ireland remained within the single market for goods requiring new checks at ports in Great Britain.
Faced with implementing a “border in the Irish Sea”, Unionists withdrew from power-sharing in Belfast. Rather than blame their own counter-productive pursuit of Brexit, they targeted the hated Protocol. Isolated from other parties within Northern Ireland, the anti-Protocol campaign nonetheless became the central rallying cry within Unionism. So, while Sinn Fein, the hated symbol of violent opposition to Northern Ireland’s existence, emerged as the largest party in Northern Ireland for the very first time, anti-Protocol sentiment within Unionism consolidated. Outside the camp, however, there was increasing public discussion about the potential for Irish unity.
When Rishi Sunak emerged from the turmoil in the Conservative Party as Prime Minister, negotiations between the EU and UK government to smooth out the rough edges of the Northern Ireland Protocol resulted in the new Windsor Framework. In the meantime, the absence of legislation or policy in Northern Ireland was having increasingly obvious effects on public services and even on salaries and wages. As the British government set its face against any reopening of the Brexit issue, the leadership of anti-Protocol Unionism was faced with a choice: negotiate a face-saving formula or continue with the veto on government in Northern Ireland for an indeterminate period.
And so, this week, the leader of the largest Unionist Party convinced the majority of his Executive that no better deal could be achieved. Based on promises and further refinements of the arrangements for customs in the Irish Sea, the party agreed to re-enter the local power-sharing Executive - although this time with a Sinn Fein First Minister.
The long-term future remains uncertain and fragile. For almost seven years, there has been little serious engagement between the governing parties on the everyday challenges facing Northern Ireland, including serious crises in the fields of health, education and infrastructure. This deal includes no reforms of the system to limit the use of the veto. And the implications of a Sinn Fein First Minister are yet to be seen.
Perhaps the cause for optimism is the threat of further failure. It seems unlikely that the institutions could retain credibility through another prolonged period of forced inactivity. And every other option has consequences which have unpalatable costs. For now, most people in Northern Ireland are hoping for a period of stability, evidence of commitment to serious reform and the implementation of already agreed pay rises. Peace may no longer be romantic, but collaboration remains an unavoidable necessity.