Good Friday Agreement - at 20, is it broken?

From BBC - April 9, 2018

If you had planned to organise a 20th birthday party for the Good Friday Agreement, you would not do it this way.

No Assembly. No power-sharing executive. No north-south ministerial meetings. Stormont unrepresented when east-west British Irish Council gatherings take place.

It feels like someone forgot to bake a cake.

Few can question the importance of the 1998 deal in human terms.

It did not bring a complete end to violence - indeed terrible atrocities, such as the Omagh bombing, came after the people endorsed the agreement in a referendum.

But the casualty figures tell their own story.

Nearly 1,500 people died in Northern Ireland's "Troubles" duringthe 20 years before the deal.

By contrast there have been fewer than 150 victims of conflict-related violence over the past two decades.

One victim is one too many, but the radically improved trend is clear.

The agreement has provided a welcome, if imperfect, peace. But it has a more chequered record when it comes to stability and good governance.

The first power-sharing executive led by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP was plagued by difficulties.

Sharing power with enemies

These stemmed from the failure of republicans to disarm or to co-operate with the police, and the disruptive influence of a sizeable group of unionists who had always rejected the compromises made over emotive issues like early prisoner releases.

The answer, a decade ago, was to bring in those reluctant parties.

International monitors verified IRA and loyalist disarmament, Sinn Fin voted to recognise the police and the DUP agreed to what had seemed unthinkable in 1998 - sitting down to share power with their sworn republican opponents.

The new deal had its high points, as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness chuckled their way into a new era.

But there were lows too, like the failure to deliver a European peace centre at the site of the old Maze jail.

Dissident republican groups tried to do their worst, loyalist paramilitaries continued to organise, while the sporadic disruption to Belfast during a dispute over limiting the days on which the Union flag could be flown at the City Hall illustrated the fragility of the new dispensation.

The latest arguments, over dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and legislating for Irish language rights, appear far more limited than the challenges overcome back in 1998. Then, both the IRA and loyalist ceasefires seemed to hang in the balance.

That said, the system of government inherited from 20 years ago has made resolving contentious issues far from straightforward.

To ensure nationalist buy-in, the 1998 deal guaranteed all the major parties a foothold in the government.

It tied the fortunes of the first and deputy first ministers inextricably together, and created a backstop called the petition of concern under which 30 assembly members can insist a controversial decision must get cross-community approval.

This network of safeguards - referred to by the former SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, as the deal's "ugly scaffolding" - provided reassurance for reluctant power sharers.

But it made for an unwieldy "lowest common denominator" form of government.

Tales abounded of decisions not taken and important pieces of paper languishing unsigned in the murky recesses of Stormont Castle.

Robin Wilson is strongly critical of the system bequeathed to Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement negotiators.

The author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? compares the requirement for Stormont politicians to designate themselves as unionists, nationalists or others to ruling that they must wear Rangers or Celtic tops.

What has been the outcome?

Mr Wilson points out that when voters have been asked in surveys what they think the assembly has achieved they tend to say "little or nothing".

What can be done?

Performers are 'blaming their instruments'


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