Northern Ireland: 25 years later, nothing “good” about this divisive agreement

13 April 2023

This week it was the 25th anniversary of the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement - GFA - which ended the 30 year armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland.

    So US President Joe Biden, reclaiming his Irish roots, visited to celebrate this great peace-keeping, “democratic” achievement!

    And he made sure to encourage (very diplomatically) the Democratic Unionist politicians to resume their power-sharing government with Sinn Fein and accept Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor Framework” Brexit deal.

    Refusing this Framework is the Unionists’ tried and tested formula to punch above their weight and get what they want in a situation where their support is steadily dwindling.  They only receive 21% of the vote today.

    But nobody would guess this.  Not when the media coverage this week exclusively involved interviews with or about these same Unionists.

    For a whole year the devolved Northern Irish Assembly has been paralysed by the so-called “ethnic veto”, hard-wired precisely, into this much-celebrated Good Friday Agreement!  So much for promoting peace!  And this is only the Assembly’s latest suspension: since it was set up in 2002, it has been suspended for 10 years out the total 21 years of its existence!

    Yes, the GFA made sure that the poison and divisiveness of religious and political sectarianism would remain the main arbiter of NI’s political system!

The built-in sectarian divide

Once elected, members of the NI Assembly must officially designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or other; unionists being those wanting NI to remain in the “UK” and Nationalists being those in favour of Ireland’s re-unification.

    The GFA duly created a mechanism that requires any new law to be supported by a majority of Unionist and Nationalist assembly members to be passed.  It was argued at the time that this would protect the interests of each community...  Instead it just helped entrench their differences...  A trick, in effect, designed to maintain divide and rule.

    The veto was allowed to turn into a Unionist veto - most recently used to oppose the “Border in the Irish Sea” proposed in the Northern Ireland Protocol...

    In fact the headache-generating Protocol too, was only really needed because the GFA - quite rightly in this case - stipulated that there be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of the North.  As a result there was nowhere else to move it to, except into the sea between NI and Britain.

Workers belong to one class, not two!

Today’s political stalemate in Northern Ireland was entirely predictable, given the provisions of this GFA. And Sunak’s government is totally cynical about the repercussions of its proposals.  The Tory party may be Unionist itself, but it can even do without the DUP on side, if it comes to it.

    However the political stalemate continues to have severe consequences for Northern Ireland’s population.  The suspension of Stormont means that civil servants have, for the past year, been left to run those few state institutions which they could.  But they could do nothing to alleviate the plight of NI’s severely collapsing NHS, since they cannot legislate a budget.  Today 37% of NI patients wait over 3 years for treatment, as opposed to just 0.016% in England.  And the situation continues to get worse.

    On Easter Monday youths threw a few petrol bombs at a police vehicle in Derry’s Creggan estate - youths who had nothing else to do.  And while this did not signify anything much, the (still) predominantly unionist police managed to find suspected “pipe bombs” in a nearby cemetery, where some dissident and masked Republicans had marched to commemorate Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.

    This year, the commemoration was overshadowed by Biden’s visit to shore up his home vote among Irish Americans and soothe NI’s unionist bigots.  But it should be remembered.  The socialist and Marxist leader of the uprising, James Connolly, (who the British executed) warned, already in 1914, about a future partitioned, divided Ireland.  This is what he wrote: “the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured”.

    While NI’s working class remains divided, more out of lack of alternative than conviction, the “reaction” Connolly foresaw was given a new lease of life by Brexit.  That said, divisions and borders cannot be the future.  A united Ireland - finally - might be a step towards eliminating them.