As the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement hoves into view in under a year’s time, much about it has become clearer with the perspective of hindsight. In particular, those who crafted it were limited in their historical and international understanding—and so did not realise that what to them was the only possible outcome was in fact a decidedly suboptimal choice.

First and foremost, it has never been recognised that the agreement embodies what has come to be known as the ‘multiculturalist’ model for the management of cultural diversity. While this has now gone out of fashion, it was developed by Britain (as also the Netherlands) as a result of its colonial past. It transferred the stereotpyical gaze of the imperial power towards its subjects—hoovering up whole populations of individuals into perceived ‘communities’—to migrants from those former colonies who arrived in the ‘mother country’. As a young John Hume, one of the subsequent founders of the SDLP, recognised, the result was that ‘Catholics of all shades of political thought are expected to band together under the unconstructive banner of nationalism’. This ‘dangerous equation’, he wrote in 1964, had ‘amply contributed to the postponement of normal politics in the area’, facilitated prior ‘unionist’ supremacy and made intracommunal dissent impossible. 

The provisions for communal designation in the agreement have another unattractive source. The underpinning idea of a ‘mutual voice and veto’ came from the Opsahl report of 1993, influenced by the early 19th-century United States vice-president John C Calhoun from South Carolina, an advocate of slavery and (southern) ‘states’ rights’ against federal enlightenment. 

There was no such provision in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 which established the power-sharing executive of 1974. Unlike the hopelessly truncated process of private negotiation which brought about the Belfast agreement—after the British and Irish governments presented the naïve US talks chair, George Mitchell, with a document the weekend before Good Friday 1998 to discuss with the parties—the 1974 arrangements were thought through from the abolition of the old Stormont parliament in March 1972 and subject to public and democratic deliberation. A green paper and a white paper preceded the act (the green paper being passed confidentially to the Irish government before publication), and a Ministerial Committee on Northern Ireland and a parallel Official Committee of civil servants met frequently in London to prepare the ground. 

The ‘peace process’ of the 1990s became defined by the perverse notion that in the 1970s the British and Irish governments had focused on the ‘moderates’, whereas now they should turn to the ‘extremes’. In fact, the power-sharing experiment was brought down by the Rev Ian Paisley and Protestant paramilitaries, not because of inadequacies in the Stormont governance arrangements but by exploiting the Achilles heel represented by the Council of Ireland, linking north and south. 

This was ironically the only part of the scheme which was the product of the private, hothouse negotiations—at Sunningdale in Berkshire—characteristic of the Belfast agreement as a whole. The grandiose claims made for it—one SDLP figure described it as ‘a vehicle for trundling unionists into a united Ireland’—compensated for the lack of tangible human-rights gains, such as an end to internment, for the SDLP to sell to its supporters and keep the IRA at bay. Paisley and the Ulster Defence Association could thus bring down the executive, assisted by some collusion within the ‘security forces’, using the slogan ‘Dublin is only a Sunningdale away’. 

Collective responsibility 

Unlike every executive established, or re-established, since the agreement, the power-sharing executive operated on the basis of collective responsibility from the outset—the Ulster Unionist chief executive, Brian Faulkner, immediately agreeing to this when it was put to him by the secretary to the executive. Thus whereas there has been no action by Stormont to implement the commitment to integrated education in the agreement, the 1974 executive agreed without controversy to a proposal from the then UUP education minister to integrate the education system. Also unlike the post-agreement arrangements—discounting the nervous giggling between Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as deputy first minister—Faulkner and the deputy chief executive, Gerry Fitt of the SDLP, developed a very strong personal relationship (as did Faulkner with the taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave). 

It was thus always simply assumed that the Catholic and liberal-Protestant members of the assembly would, in aggregate, comprise a majority within it. The communal designation in the agreement has perversely acted to prevent such a progressive coalition manifesting itself. As Paul Nolan has however highlighted, first Belfast City Council and now Stormont have moved from domination by ‘unionist’ representatives to a scenario in which neither sectarian bloc is able to secure a majority on its own. Indeed, because of the effects in Northern Ireland of the processes of globalisation and individualisation everywhere evident, what has accompanied the decline of ‘unionism’ has not been the rise of ‘nationalism’ but the emergence of less- or non-aligned political preferences, dramatically evidenced in the doubling by Alliance of its assembly representation in the May election. 

This means that now the communal-veto arrangements in the assembly have come, even more perversely, to be used—despite being pressed by the SDLP in the talks in 1998—by ‘unionists’ no longer able to command a majority. If the provisions were removed tomorrow, the only ‘minority rights’ they would threaten would be of that diminishing group of far-right opponents of abortion and LGBT+ rights who have also been partners in the quixotic campaign by the Europhobe faction which has in recent years taken over the Conservative Party. 

This does not mean there is no case for a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, as originally advocated by the civil-rights movement. Especially if the UK government repeals the 1998 Human Rights Act which incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law—this ended the long treks to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg many Northern Ireland claimants had had to make over the decades—such a bill should continue to allow the courts in Northern Ireland to treat the convention as authoritative. It should also render justiciable within the region the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and its Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. 

A European paradigm 

More positively, a new Northern Ireland Act, replacing that which implemented the Belfast agreement, should reflect the commitments of both the Irish and UK states to the Council of Europe paradigm for the management of cultural diversity, developed in this century in response to such traumas as ‘September 11’ and the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Recommendations’ (resolutions) in 2015 and April this year by the Committee of Ministers representing the 46 member states set out the new model, of ‘intercultural integration’, elaborated by the council. 

This paradigm recognises that all individuals are diversely unique and that interaction must be facilitated among them, on a basis of equality, for social cohesion. The most recent recommendation includes a 10-point template for the member states to pursue in developing integration plans. This should frame a new plan for Northern Ireland, replacing the vacuous ‘Together: Building a United Community’ document cobbled together by the Stormont executive in 2013 and finally bringing down the sectarian ‘peace walls’. 

A new Northern Ireland Act should also change the electoral system for the assembly. The then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald tried to persuade his British counterpart, Edward Heath, that he should not use the single-transferable vote in the 1973 assembly election, because of the experience of it in Ireland over the decades, promoting clientelism as it does by having candidates of the same party compete. It has thus ensured there can be no sensible rationalisation of acute hospitals in Northern Ireland. Sadly, Heath was adamant—though STV, introduced in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act simply because one of its designers was British, is used outside of Ireland only in Malta and for the upper house in Australia. 

As the US expert on ethnic conflict Donald Horowitz identified in an Opsahl memorial lecture in Belfast, STV incentivises polarisation by encouraging candidates to focus on the small sectarian core vote which provides the easy route to victory in multi-member constituencies. The additional-member system FitzGerald favoured, used in Scotland and Wales, is also proportional, via the top-up list (also a route for parties to ensure gender balance) but it incentivises accommodating pitches and tactical voting to secure victory in mixed constituencies. 

The act should simply require parties forming a government at Stormont after an election to do so around a Programme for Government. The agreement did specify that such an agreement would be annually iterated but the last (still only a draft) appeared in 2016. Other parties can then form an opposition, with a view to ‘turfing the scoundrels out’ at a subsequent election and making voting meaningful for the citizen—rather than mere participation in a sectarian arms race for the positions, under the agreement, of first and deputy first minister. These positions were originally conceived as a joint symbol of reconciliation by Mark Durkan of the SDLP, who became deputy first minister, following the ad hoc way in which the then Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and Séamus Mallon of the SDLP together consoled the (as it happens Protestant and Catholic) victims of a paramilitary shooting in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, shortly before the agreement. But this joint character was filleted out following the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, to woo the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party into government. 

A shared island 

A new Northern Ireland Act should also remove the constraints on north-south co-operation set out in the agreement, at Trimble’s behest. Since the ill-fated Council of Ireland, the Irish government has recently developed a conciliatory ‘shared island’ narrative, led by the Department of the Taoiseach, within which all sorts of areas of collaboration, such as climate change, are being explored, with the expert help of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, through north-south dialogues. 

This removes all the emotional political charge from north-south integration and gives it a positive (indeed essential as well as desirable) association, especially given the basket case the Northern Ireland economy on its own has become. Big gains for north-south trade have unintentionally followed ‘Brexit’, with enterprises in both jurisdictions reorienting towards the ‘island economy’ within the European Union single market, as imagined in 1992 by the progressive former northern official the late George Quigley. 

This can be part of a process of intercultural integration island-wide, rendering obsolete the other old (French) model for dealing with diversity, of assimilation, which defined the old one-party state at Stormont and which SF still espouses in its ‘united Ireland’ alternative. This would recognise that reconciliation in Ireland is a process, not an event, and that any 32-county jurisdiction should be a refoundation of the Irish state for this century—not simply its extension into the north as happened so problematically with German reunification, its legacy of a ‘wall in the head’ still evident in the disproportionate support for the far right in the old east-German area. Ireland is only (partially) resembled by Portugal in Europe in its English-legacy centralisation, lacking any regional tier of government. 

A transition to a 32-county Ireland should address that deficit, such as by devolution to the four historic provinces—much better from a Derry-Donegal point of view than sustaining a six-county jurisdiction in the north-east. Any such process should be consensual throughout. The 1973 border poll was in fact initiated in the wake of the revelation of secret talks between the then British secretary of state, William Whitelaw, and Gerry Adams, McGuinness and other IRA leaders. In the Ministerial Committee on Northern Ireland, it was recognised this was a response to ‘extreme Protestant feeling’ and that it would be an ‘anomaly’ to have such a vote—as was to be the case with the Brexit referendum—‘without an indication of the proposed constitutional solution’. But it went ahead nonetheless. Catholics (and liberal Protestants) boycotted en masse

The agreement replicated this arrangement, without awareness of how it had come about and fallen into desuetude (the poll was to have been repeated every ten years). What would make sense would be to have referenda north and south at the end of a process of integration when a concrete all-Ireland arrangement (with all of the island then becoming the European Union member state, as already agreed at EU level) was identified as the preferred option. 

I have set out here a way ahead. But other viewpoints are of course legitimate and the best way to identify the optimal solution would be to break with the ‘peace process’ approach of private talks between the parti pris protagonists and indeed expand the process of deliberation beyond the two governments and parliaments to citizens’ assemblies, given their success in Ireland to date with constitutional issues. 

Logically, a citizens’ assembly drawn from Northern Ireland could be married with one on an island-wide level to address the mutually reinforcing northern and all-Ireland dimensions of any new dispensation. The two governments should agree such a road map over the coming months so that these can be set in train in advance of Good Friday 2023—and a break with a quarter century of dysfunctionality and division finally held out.