A couple of days ago, in response to my tweet that the British and Irish governments considered the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) “too important to fail”, John Taylor (Lord Kilcluny) noted: “If the Belfast Agreement fails, in Northern Ireland there will be no Stormont, no partisan agreement. Instead: Westminster’s short-term rule and the British government’s discussion with Dublin of a united Ireland. This will lead to a terrible resurgence of violence on our island!”
The original tweet appeared to be related to a Belfast Telegraph report about whether Secretary of State Brandon Lewis would deliver on what he hinted at immediately after the election: either halting or cutting MLA salaries if the current hiatus continues.
I came to the conclusion that he would not want to do much, fearing that anything resembling “punishment” might lead to the exit of some parties, followed by the collapse of institutions.
And this conclusion was drawn because, although the GFA is only 10 months from its 25th anniversary, it is still shrouded in instability and uncertainty, moving closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
It’s all too easy to say – though it’s surprising how many people are talking about it – that the latest crisis (note the use of the word “last”, by the way) is all about Brexit.
We had crises before Brexit, including long periods of suspension and urgent negotiations on a regular basis, and even if the Assembly survives, you can bet your last dollar that another crisis will always be around every corner.
It is a consequence of the lack of trust, minimal cooperation and conflicting constitutional ambitions that dominate and overshadow every aspect of interaction between the Assembly and the executive branch.
Frankly, it’s a real surprise that the structures are still in place.
However, I would argue that they are still in place only because both governments and key players on the ground fear alternatives, the main one being a return to the past, although I don’t think we are even close to that. moving on from the past since 1998.
Indeed, it still strikes me as odd that much of the criticism of the Assembly’s continued dysfunction comes from the response, “Well, it’s better than it used to be.” Go a little further with the critique, as I did most recently with the MLA series, and you’ll be met with a variation: “Nobody wants to go back to the good old days, do they?”
All of this suggests that there is a genuine fear in both the ruling and political class – and probably among the civic elements involved in business and intercommunal work – that 25 years after the referendum unanimously approved the GFA, there remains a clear possibility of the return of those bad days. Which, in turn, suggests that the polarity and toxicity of politics before 1998 did not really change much.
And, as I said, I think this is why the GFA is still considered too important to fail, and why everyone and everything – no matter how absurd the “cunning plan” or the tasteless band-aid – will be done to keep him afloat.
But this particular crisis seems different. It has an almost existential feel to it. The hostility and polarization between unionism/loyalty and nationalism/republicism is on a level of toxicity that I can’t recall from around 1985 and the Anglo-Irish agreement.
Relations between the British and Irish governments are also at a low point not seen in decades. Not a day goes by that brick batons are not fired from both sides.
Just this week, Bertie Ahern warned that the protocol bill could “separate Ireland halfway from the EU” with the problems and damage it will cause; Chris Patten accused Boris Johnson and Liz Truss of “going along with the mob” with the bill; and David Trimble accused Michael Martin of “protocol criticism”.
Jamie Bryson, who clearly listens to trade union politicians and new generation loyalists on the ground, tweeted: “The Belfast Agreement. It’s happening way too timely. Learn to embrace change.”
I mention this because it reflects the growing antipathy towards the GFA – which I wrote about earlier in the Belfast Telegraph – among the Unionist/Loyal/Orange Order sections.
Fair enough, as with many of his tweets, there is a kite-flying element, but one very senior union member told me before the election, “Sometimes I think the Assembly is a bigger threat to our union status than even protocol.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin and much of the civic nationalism seem to have abandoned the Assembly/Executive as a long-term project and turned their attention to border questioning and eventual unity. This point was probably reached even without the consequences of Brexit, because it has always depended on changing demographics and the trade union/nationalist balance in the Assembly. But again, this point is worth noting because it involves both traditional blocs moving away from Assembly/Executive survival priorities – albeit for different reasons.
The fact that so many people are now aware of how precarious political stability is here should make them think about two key questions: Is the GFA at a tipping point, and if so, what are the consequences of its collapse?
I’m not sure enough people are focused on the last question, especially since the answer to the first is yes.