We must continue to honour the Good Friday Agreement to ensure stability within the two parts of Ireland
North South Ministerial Council sign (Alan Morris / Alamy Stock Photo)
North-south co-operation is right at the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The exchange of constitution for institutions was central to the very remarkable compromise agreed in 1998.
Some historical context is essential: rejection of structured north-south co-operation by some unionists led to the collapse of the first power-sharing executive in 1974; and, despite intense unionist opposition, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the Irish government a formal consultative role in relation to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.
The 1998 Agreement is based on commitment by all to its checks and balances, including rejection of violence for political purposes. It made Northern Ireland’s constitutional status unique – as part of the United Kingdom, with parity of esteem for the Irish identity in Northern Ireland, and a commitment by the UK government to rigorous impartiality between the two main traditions. A key step was the Irish government’s amendment of the constitution to remove the “territorial claim” over Northern Ireland. This was conditional on the establishment of north-south institutions with meaningful functions: namely, the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) which engages on an agreed group of formal areas of co-operation (eg health); and six executive implementation bodies (which administer functions such as waterways on an all-island basis).
While there had long been agreement that the status of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of a majority, formal acceptance by the Irish state (and implicitly by the Irish republican movement) of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom was an enormous step. The north-south institutions made that possible, as a demonstration of parity of esteem for the Irish identity in Northern Ireland.
The reality remains, that, as in 1998, future stability depends on a constructive accommodation between the two main traditions within Northern Ireland, and between the two parts of Ireland
Pro-Agreement unionists were willing to accept the creation of more extensive north-south institutions because of the removal of the “territorial claim,” and the replacement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The 1998 Agreement also channelled the Irish government’s role in relation to Northern Ireland, away from a relationship between the two governments, onto a north-south axis, where decisions in the NSMC are subject to cross-community agreement in the assembly and the executive, as well as in the Dáil.
Creative ambiguity makes the 1998 Agreement work. The NSMC is both: the embryo of an all-island administration (symbolically headquartered in the ancient capital, Armagh); and, simultaneously, nothing more than a vehicle for pragmatic co-operation between neighbours on issues of mutual benefit. Between 1999 and 2016, there were many important benefits from north-south cooperation, including some bilateral co-operation outside the NSMC (most significantly, the Single Electricity Market).
During the Brexit negotiations, the Irish government’s determined focus on preserving the scope of north-south co-operation was reflected in the text of the Northern Ireland Protocol as agreed in October 2019. That reflects both concerns about the practical issues that arise from any form of Brexit, and also the fact that Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional position is founded on the exchange of constitution for institutions agreed in 1998. The Democratic Unionist Party began to boycott NSMC meetings during 2021, well before their withdrawal from the executive. That key strand of the 1998 Agreement, which helped secure agreement to the constitutional position, is not functioning.
The present disagreement over the Protocol could cause fundamental and lasting damage. The 1998 Agreement’s details may need to evolve. The reality remains, however, that, as in 1998, future stability depends on a constructive accommodation between the two main traditions within Northern Ireland, and between the two parts of Ireland (set in the context of the totality of relations within these islands). That can only be built on the central compromises made by courageous leaders in 1998.
Andrew McCormick retired from the Northern Ireland Civil Service in 2021. He was responsible for international relations (including all aspects of Brexit and the Protocol), and for the North South Ministerial Council.
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