As Northern Ireland prepares to mark a quarter of a century since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, there is growing debate about the future of the settlement.
In the absence of functional devolved government – a seemingly routinised feature of political life in Northern Ireland – some are even wondering if the institutions created by the 1998 Agreement will ever function again.
Those calling for the outright abandonment of the Agreement represent a very small minority of the population. In the most recent Life and Times Survey, just 6% of adults said that the Agreement has never been a good basis for governing Northern Ireland and should be removed (see Table 1). At the same time, however, the Agreement in its current form does not receive widespread endorsement. In the same survey, only a quarter of respondents said that the Agreement remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland as it is.
Instead, many people’s views towards the Agreement are somewhere in between: there are 40% who want to see some changes, 8% who want to see substantial changes, and 19% who don’t know what option would best sum up their position. In other words, this amounts to a combined majority who are either unsure about the Agreement or want to see it changed to some extent. The level of support for each particular position varies from group to group, but those seeking or potentially open to reform amounts to a majority among Catholics, Protestants, people from no religious background, nationalists, unionists, and those who are neither nationalist nor unionist.
The next question is, if so many people are apparently open to reform, what kind of reform(s) do they have in mind? And, crucially, is there a high degree of common ground, or do different groups pull in different directions?
In the spring of 2021, just before the campaign for the May Assembly election got underway, the University of Liverpool’s Sean Haughey and I organised a mini citizens’ assembly on possible institutional reform. With the help of the survey company Ipsos, we brought together just under 50 people from across Northern Ireland, broadly mirroring the wider population in terms of age, gender, geographical location, community background and political designation.
While institutional reform covers a wide spectrum of possibilities, we focused on the specific issue of government formation in Northern Ireland: should it be based around the current model of maximally-inclusive power-sharing or should it be based on something else? We floated two possible alternative models: moving to simple coalition (which might be considered the most radical departure from the status quo, whereby it would be up to parties to negotiate a viable government amongst themselves after an election) or moving to a qualified coalition model (which might be considered a hybrid option, whereby it would be up to parties to negotiate a viable government, but there would be some kind of requirement for cross-community representation in the Executive).
Discussion of each model
After listening to expert presentations on both the current system of government formation in Northern Ireland and two potential alternatives, in small groups the participants discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of each model. While most people aren’t exactly used to discussing the technicalities of institutional design, the participants of this event showed that ‘ordinary’ members of the public are perfectly capable of engaging in these kinds of conversations when they are given the tools and space to do so.
Unsurprisingly, people from all backgrounds expressed their frustrations with the current system. Executive instability, a lack of cooperation between parties, and the perceived dominance of ‘orange and green’ politics were frequently cited. Still, many participants – particularly those from older age groups – fundamentally associated the current system, for all its faults, with a sustained period of peace. Others highlighted the high degree of inclusivity offered by existing arrangements.
Just as people identified strengths as well as weaknesses in the current model of power-sharing, people had mixed views on the possible alternatives. There was broad appetite for a simple coalition model as being a long-term goal, but there were widespread fears that Northern Ireland is not ready for a model of government that lacks clear cross-community safeguards. A qualified coalition model was recognised by many as a way of promoting more cohesive government without abandoning the requirement for power-sharing between communities, but there were concerns about how any mechanism for ensuring cross-community representation would be implemented (including how to fairly recognise the ‘others’) and whether this would ultimately be much different to the current system.
By the end of the discussions, no single model received overwhelming support; neither did any of the options considered receive overwhelming opposition. Anyone hoping that this one-day exercise in deliberative democracy would provide a clear and comprehensive blueprint for institutional reform will be disappointed. However, this small-scale event still generated two important takeaways.
Firstly, it indicates that in the absence of widespread support for radical reform of the current system, it is worth exploring more modest, focused reforms to help power-sharing become more stable and effective in practice. For example, the specific rules around the allocation of the offices of First and Deputy First Minister could be revisited, perhaps to allocate them using the d’Hondt formula along with other ministries. Parties could also make better – and more consistent – use of provisions that already exist, such as some parties making the choice to enter opposition even if they are entitled to enter government under the d’Hondt formula.
Secondly, if there was one thing that was abundantly clear from this mini citizens’ assembly – expressed by participants from all backgrounds – it was a sense that the public must be properly consulted if any major reforms are to command widespread legitimacy. As one participant concisely put it, “I feel that in the past, we’ve been kept in the dark.”
In 2023 it is not just the anniversary of the signing of the Agreement that will be commemorated; it is also the anniversary of the popular referendum endorsing it – on a turnout of 81%. While the document itself covered many different elements, among its key functions was to provide a framework for how Northern Ireland should be governed. With successive sets of negotiations taking place since then, there is a sense that the wider public has been largely detached from fundamental questions of how they are governed. As far as public opinion goes, there is considerable appetite to use this juncture to renew, not abandon, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. And if such a renewal is to be sustainable, the public should be participants and not mere bystanders in this process.
The full report by Sean Haughey and Jamie Pow, Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform in Northern Ireland: Evidence from a Deliberative Forum, can be found here: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/humanities-and-social-sciences/research/research-themes/transforming-conflict/institutional-reform/
Views on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, by community background and ethno-national identity (Source: NI Life & Times Survey, 2021)
|To stay as it is||25||40||16||23||47||16||20|
|To be removed||6||2||11||5||2||13||4|
Full question wording:
There are a number of different opinions on the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement which was signed in 1998. Which one of these statements is closest to your view?
- Agreement remains best basis for governing NI as it is
- Agreement remains best basis for governing NI, but needs some changes
- Agreement no longer good basis for governing NI, should be substantially changed
- Agreement never been good basis for governing NI, should be removed
- Don’t know