Sniping between the UK and Ireland over political paralysis in Northern Ireland has intensified calls for reform of the landmark peace deal that successfully ended a three decade conflict but has failed to deliver stability.
Tensions between the two countries supposed to guarantee the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have been rising over Dublin’s opposition to a controversial UK amnesty bill for atrocities during the Troubles conflict.
But they escalated this week over remarks by Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Northern Ireland secretary, deepening a crisis that has engulfed the political institutions set up by the peace deal and compounding turmoil in the police and public finances.
“The fear is that it [the Good Friday Agreement] is in jeopardy now . . . because we have all these different crises together: the prolonged collapse [of the Northern Ireland executive], poor British-Irish relations and the economy,” said Etain Tannam, associate professor in international peace studies at Trinity College Dublin.
The Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles involving republican paramilitaries seeking a united Ireland, loyalist paramilitaries determined to keep Northern Ireland in the UK and British security forces.
It yoked political enemies into a power-sharing executive that has frequently imploded in the past 25 years because the region’s two biggest nationalist and unionist parties each hold a veto over its operation. It has been shuttered for about 40 per cent of the time since 1998 and is now on its second prolonged collapse since 2017.
Stop-start executives have hobbled budget planning and led to a profound fiscal crisis in the region — one of the UK’s poorest. Civil servants are now in charge and have slashed spending by about £1bn, while warning of irreparable harm to key services and badly needed skills training. But think-tank Pivotal has warned that another £1bn in unfunded spending commitments remain.
Policing, widely considered one of the most successful post-Troubles reforms, has been hammered by a string of scandals, including allegations of political interference and a data blunder that splashed personal details of all its 10,000 officers and staff on the internet.
“We’re in a really parlous state at the moment,” said Les Allamby, an independent member of the region’s oversight Policing Board and new independent chair of the grassroots Civic Initiative, of the region’s multiple crises.
“Paradoxically, internationally people still see Northern Ireland and many of the institutional reforms as relatively successful but the absence of devolved institutions for two-thirds of the last seven years now is a real problem in terms of trying to build up any engagement and trust,” he said.
The Democratic Unionist party, the region’s biggest pro-UK political grouping, sparked the current political crisis in February 2022, in a row over post-Brexit trade rules. It is demanding guarantees from London that Northern Ireland’s UK identity and ability to trade with Britain will be protected.
After angering London last week by saying he expected to see a united Ireland in his lifetime, Varadkar, this week berated the UK government at a peace funding event in Belfast over the “snail’s pace” progress in restoring the executive at Stormont.
Speaking at the same event, Heaton-Harris branded the Irish premier’s remarks “unhelpful”. He insisted negotiations with the DUP on resolving its concerns over Brexit have “moved forward substantially”.
Naomi Long, whose Alliance party identifies as neither unionist nor nationalist, told both governments to “get their act together” and stop “squabbling publicly”.
She is pushing for reform of the Good Friday Agreement to make political structures more durable and to reflect changing political dynamics. Northern Ireland was intended to be permanently unionist when it was created by partition in 1921, but nationalist party Sinn Féin is now the biggest political force and the Alliance has risen to a strong third.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he is still awaiting for a response from London to his party’s concerns over the Windsor framework, agreed between the UK and EU earlier this year to smooth problems with their post-Brexit trading regime. But both London and Brussels have ruled out renegotiation and the new rules take effect from October 1.
Politicians and business leaders see only a small window to get Stormont back before the UK swings into campaigning mode ahead of a general election expected next year.
But some unionists are content to hold out. “At the minute, what’s in it for the DUP to go back?” said former party leader Edwin Poots. “The Windsor framework doesn’t cut it, simple as.”
In the past, London has stepped in when Stormont has collapsed, but Heaton-Harris is reluctant to do so again. Meanwhile, Dublin said it needs a bigger role if there is a lengthy hiatus in the executive, fuelling disquiet among some unionists about the region’s long-term future as debate swirls about the prospect of a “new” or reunited Ireland.
Alan Whysall, an honorary senior research associate at the Constitution Unit, University College London, warned that with a political crisis, faltering reconciliation efforts and disagreement over policing in Northern Ireland the “broader foundations of the agreement settlement continue to crumble”.
The sense of hope that delivered the Good Friday Agreement needed “rekindling” through constructive politics, compromise and engagement between London and Dublin, he said.
“Nothing else is plausibly on the horizon so it [the Good Friday Agreement] can’t fall apart,” he added. “They’ve got to make it work.”