The creativity behind the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 made it a model for peace building in numerous regions blighted by intractable conflict . Power-sharing is now the go-to conflict resolution tool in dozens of peace agreements, and even terms such as ‘parity of esteem’ appear in accords as far as the Philippines . In spite of this, Northern Ireland faced an unprecedented political crisis decades after, that led to a three-year shut down of government.
A new deal has now been agreed. It has already fulfilled its main purpose which was to enable the two main parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF) – to go back into government together, and the political institutions established in the Agreement, which had lain in collapse for three years, to be restored. It is then worth taking a look at how the impasse that had followed the collapse of government – and indeed prefigured it – was resolved to see what lessons can be learned elsewhere.
I argue that the New Decade, New Approach document does not fundamentally change the institutions, and that similar issues to those that collapsed it are likely to arise again. However, I suggest that unlike earlier agreements, this one is not the result of creative politics which papers over disagreement, but rather came about because the blockages to reforming the executive were removed by cross-community campaigning by ordinary people.
Multiple Reasons for Collapse
The trigger for the collapse of the Northern Irish institutions ostensibly was the revelation that a Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme, intended to promote the use of environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels, was being used as a way of claiming ‘cash for ash’. For every £1 of fuel being burned, the owners of boilers could claim back £1.60. A drip feed of findings by investigative journalists pointed to this not simply being an act of legislative incompetence by the largest part which held the First Ministership in the power-sharing government (the DUP), but rather that they had applied pressure which had led to the intentional removal of safeguards and produced a culture of lack of transparency within the civil service.
In the following inquiry, civil servants highlighted that in power-sharing government based on consensus between previously hostile parties, a level of secrecy seemed necessary so that decisions could be made that might be unpalatable to the voters. Similar accusations of corruption and a lack of transparency are also currently being made against sectarian power-sharing government in Lebanon, and indeed research suggests that power-sharing may enable corruption in particular ways .
While RHI was the immediate cause of Stormont’s fall, several other issues had also increased public dissatisfaction with the institutions. Marriage equality and abortion reform seemed impossible to legislate for given the DUP’s insistence on using their veto powers to block progress in spite of majority support for these measures, even among the DUP’s own voters. A dynamic of ‘ethnic outbidding’, which is also found in other places with consociational government, made it difficult for DUP voters to punish their party for fear of allowing their opponents, Sinn Féin to become the largest party.
Calls by Sinn Féin, nationalists, and other non-aligned groups for Irish language legislation which had been committed to in a post-agreement implementation agreement (St Andrews Agreement ) had also come to the fore since the Irish Language Líofa scheme for under-privileged young people had been scrapped by a DUP minister. The context of Brexit too, bringing the possibility of a hardening of the border, either between North and South or East and West, fractured public opinion along traditional axes.
Among citizens, trust in the Assembly had plummeted even before its collapse, as evidenced by NI Life and Times survey data . Between 2007 and 2015 (before the RHI scandal broke), the perception that the Assembly worked in the best interests of the region at least most of the time reduced from 60% to 32%. By 2018, only 40% of people saw devolved government as their preferred long term solution, down from 66% in 2007. The 2019 ‘Brexit’ United Kingdom-wide General Election saw both Sinn Féin and the DUP loose votes, by 6.7% and 5.4% respectively. Large marches and protests about social issues gathered pace and there was an increased anxiety about a possible return to widespread violence.
This fear reached its zenith with the murder of Lyra McKee by republican paramilitaries . At her funeral, the Fr Magill thanked politicians from across the divide for attending, before asking “”Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?”. A standing ovation broke out among attendees, moved out into the crowd outside, and was finally joined by the embarrassed politicians themselves. Again, it was ordinary people demanding the change that eventually lead to the deal.
A New Approach for a New Decade?
The signing of the ‘New Deal for a New Decade’ deal to resuscitate Stormont came about because many of these issues have now been resolved without the need for agreement among local parties. Marriage equality and abortion reform have now been legalised by Westminster, not due to pressure from the parties, but rather because of the work of campaigners from across the divide highlighting these issues and working in alliance with politicians in England. Brexit too is now a done deal, with no hardening of the Irish border (see withdrawal agreement political declaration ). The recognition by the Irish government and the EU that this would undoubtedly lead to a massive popular backlash turned this into a combined red line in negotiations.
All that was left for the local parties to negotiate then was changes to the form of mutual veto, transparency, and the Irish language. Even this may have been too much to agree without the Secretary of State capitalising on the changing mood among citizens by threatening an Assembly election that would have been disastrous for the two main parties. Unprecedented and widely supported strike action by nursing staff for pay parity in line with GB, impossible without an executive to sign off on it, added pressure. These threats were successful and the new deal was signed. It does not however mean similar problems could not arise again.
Power-sharing: The petition of concern has now been slightly adapted. The deal comes with a non-binding commitment to reduce its chronic over use. There is no change to how many MLAs must sign the petition to veto legislation, but it must now come with a rationale and a 14 day consideration period. One party on its own cannot trigger the veto on its own, but in the current Assembly this makes no difference given no party has 30 seats anyway. In short, abortion reform and marriage equality could, and most likely would, still be blocked under the new arrangements. If similar rights based issues come about in the future, the only avenue to progress would be to again collapse the Assembly and renegotiate a new deal, or hope the issue is taken out of their hands again at Westminster.
Accountability and Transparency: With regard to transparency, the most significant changes are that details will be published of meetings between ministers and external organisations, along with more record keeping and protections for whistle-blowers. It seems likely that when the inquiry into the RHI scandal produces its report, similar recommendations will be made. This could go some way to stop a repeat of the same problems, but it will not make corruption impossible. Northern Ireland is still the only region in the British Isles where donations to parties are not publically accessible, which at the very least makes public trust more difficult.
Irish Language: Finally, the Irish language does receive some protection with the introduction of a new commissioner and language protections, and also a similar one for Ulster Scots (favoured more by the Unionist community). The recommendations of this commissioner must however be approved by the First and Deputy First Ministers. This means it is open to political interference and it seems likely that this issue has not been settled but will continue to be debated long into the future.
In addition, the deal reiterates commitments made in previous agreements. The one with particular capacity to cause future instability is commitments to deal with past atrocities through the historical inquiries team. This has become a present concern given the current trial of ‘Soldier F’, accused of murder at ‘Bloody Sunday’ , and has a political dimension given the British government’s recent commitments to obstructing prosecutions they see as ‘vexatious’ .
A ‘Return to the Status Quo’?
There is nothing in the new agreement that fundamentally alters the nature of governance in the region. In all likelihood, issues of culture and identity, past atrocities, and the basic day to day business of public policy, as well as unexpected events, will once again cause new political crises. The pattern of collapse-and-renegotiate will probably continue. Indeed, some conflict transformation scholars see permanent settlements to intractable conflict as implausible, and that the best that can be hoped for is ‘formalised political unsettlement’. As long as there is no widespread violence, kicking the can down the road is a kind of success. However, the most important lesson to be learned about the events of the last few years is that fundamental change has been the product of campaigning and changing attitudes among the population at large rather than the deals made between political elites. In a region that is typically expected to have entrenched political beliefs, long term trends are evident in terms of voting behaviour, national identity and inter-group attitudes. These attitude changes have created the context in which this deal could be signed, and explains the pressure party leaders faced to restore the institutions, just as Sinn Féin was forced by ordinary party members to collapse the institutions. We should pay more attention to the beliefs of ordinary people when trying to understand how conflict is brought to a close.
 Belfast Telegraph “NI peace deal has lasting impact on agreements worldwide, study finds” 2018 https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/ni-peace-deal-has-lasting-impact-on-agreements-worldwide-study-finds-36777677.html
 For example, The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, 2014, https://www.peaceagreements.org/view/881/The%20Comprehensive%20Agreement%20on%20the%20Bangsamoro
 Haass & Ottmann, Profits from Peace: The Political Economy of Power-Sharing and Corruption, 2017, https://econpapers.repec.org/article/eeewdevel/v_3a99_3ay_3a2017_3ai_3ac_3ap_3a60-74.htm
 Susan MacKay, “Lyra McKee didn’t die in the cause of Irish ‘freedom’. She was Irish freedom”, The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/19/lyra-mckee-writer-murder-derry-northern-ireland
 Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, 2019, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/840656/Political_Declaration_setting_out_the_framework_for_the_future_relationship_between_the_European_Union_and_the_United_Kingdom.pdf
 BBC, 2019 Bloody Sunday: Soldier F faces murder charges, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-47540271
 Irish Post, 2020, 30 January 1972: This week marks 48 years since Bloody Sunday https://www.irishpost.com/news/30-january-1972-week-marks-48-years-since-bloody-sunday-178422