Lewes Labour Party very kindly invited myself and Professor Mary Hickman to speak on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this week. Below is the text of my prepared remarks, which I think bears some resemblance to what I actually said!
I'd like to talk a little bit about where we are with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, twenty years on, and how that has become entwined with politics at Westminster, because of Brexit in the first instance, and because of the DUP deal later on.
There have always been problems when it came to actually implementing the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement was based on three strands
Strand One: The status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, which was the important one for unionists, who wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland’s place in the union, and also to get back their old devolved government.
Strand Two: The relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which was the important strand for nationalists, who wanted a closer relationship and ultimately a united Ireland.
Strand Three: The relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The big difficulties in the early years were about Strand One, about getting unionists and nationalists and republicans into devolved government together, at a time when the IRA had not yet left the stage, and had not yet decommissioned its arms.
That was part of a bigger complex of security issues, which included demilitarisation and policing. Demilitarisation was a particularly big issue in the border area, and that is something that obviously informs a lot of the current concerns about a hard border as a result of Brexit.
All of those issues led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly four times by 2002, with the last suspension lasting until 2007.
During those periods you had direct rule by the British Government, but these were Labour Governments which worked in close consultation with the Irish Government, using the formal mechanisms in the Good Friday Agreement for that purpose, the British-Irish Intergovernmental conference, which is rather different from what is happening now.
By the time many of those issues had been worked through, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists had been overtaken by more hardline parties, Sinn Fein on the nationalist side and the DUP on the unionist side. This was was a problem not only because those parties were diametrically opposed to each other, and it wasn't clear that the DUP would work with Sinn Fein, but because the DUP had and has never fully accepted the Good Friday Agreement.
There are were always signs, however, that the DUP could be pragmatic if it got the opportunity of power. For example, it took up the chance to have ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, even though those Ministers didn't actually attend meetings of the Executive.
Ultimately, of course, they did do a deal with Sinn Fein. That partly was down to Peter Hain as Northern Ireland Secretary, who managed to make direct rule sufficiently annoying to both sides that they wanted to get rid of and get devolution.
And that deal was known as the St Andrews Agreement. It came in for some criticism for being a more polarised agreement than the Good Friday agreement. One rule it changed stated that the First Minister would be drawn from the largest party regardless of whether it was unionist or nationalist.
That was very useful to the DUP because it meant that they could go to unionist voters, and say 'if you vote for any party other than DUP, Martin McGuinness will become First Minister. That had a lot of resonance in the unionist community, and it was a significant factor in polarising assembly elections.
Nevertheless, ironically, Martin McGuinness in the end had a positive relationship with Paisley, and would have liked to see him hang around longer, but he was pushed out in 2008.
Paisley was replaced by Peter Robinson, who had long been known as the key strategic thinker in the DUP. Robinson did make some attempts to position the party towards the centre. He talked about the the future of the union depending on pro-union Catholic voters, and on the need for the DUP to appeal to those voters.
But ultimately his party reined him in. He wrote a famous 'Letter from America' in 2013 which repudiated some of the deals that Sinn Fein understood to have been done. From that point there was never really the same ambition about what the two parties could achieve, although he did achieve a longer period of stability than any of his predecessors.
Robinson was replaced as DUP leader in 2015 by Arlene Foster. There are two important things to understand about Foster is that she's from the border area. Her father was an RUC reservist who was shot and injured by the IRA. Her own school bus was bombed. So that back-story had a lot of resonance, particularly across the unionist community.
At the same time though, she didn't start out in the DUP. She's not a member of Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church. She was one of those came across from the Ulster Unionist Party, and that in some ways limits her authority within the party.
So under her leadership this situation continued where the DUP felt no great pressure to compromise with nationalists. And for a long time there was a sort of consensus that the demographic growth of the Catholic community was not really materialising into the kind of advance for nationalism that might have been expected.
One interpretation of that is a lot of middle-class nationalists were pretty comfortable with a situation created by the agreement and weren't ultimately that bothered whether it led to a united Ireland. Another is that a lot of people were pretty disillusioned with the kind of politics that the assembly was producing, particularly in the face of the austerity that was coming from Westminster.
And you saw the result of that in the 2016 assembly election, where there was more debate about bread and butter issues, and Sinn Fein in particular lost a couple of seats to People Before Profit, which would be the Irish equivalent of the Socialist Workers Party. So you could argue at that point, from a unionist point of view that things were ticking over nicely.
And then everything changed. And that was down to three big game-changers in the last two years.
The first of these, of course, just a month later in June 2016, was Brexit. That meant, firstly, that sort of nationalist comfort zone was thrown up in the air. All of the assumptions about the relationships between Britain and Ireland that were held not just by moderate nationalists, but by people in the centre ground and by moderate unionists, have been called into question.
Secondly, it potentially altered the balance of power between London and Dublin, with Dublin now at the table in the EU and London on the outside. That strengthened Sinn Fein which is a major opposition party in Dublin at the expense of the SDLP, which until recently had several seats in Westminster. So nationalists increasingly began to look towards Dublin and indeed Brussels, and began to lose patience not only with Westminster but also with Stormont itself.
Nationalist impatience with the DUP began to come to a head, and the Irish language act became a lightning rod for that, and that really began to put pressure on Sinn Fein. At that point, the scandal broke over the renewal heating incentive, which drew in Arlene Foster personally as the former Minister. I believe she is due to testify about her personal role to the inquiry into that in the next few days. Sinn Fein initially tried to keep the show on the road, but the given the pressure from their own grassroots, it was the straw that broke the camel's back.
The collapse of the executive and the assembly election of 2017 were the second big game-changer. That election produced quite a historic result. It was the first election in the history of Northern Ireland that didn't produce an absolute unionist majority. Although unionism was still the largest single bloc, nationalists and the centre ground together had more seats. Although unionism collectively still has a veto under the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP doesn't have enough seats to exercise that veto on its own. The practical consequence of that is that if the assembly gets up and running again, there's a chance that things like equal marriage could go through.
Of course, the assembly isn't up and running at the moment. And one reason for that may be that the next big reversal of fortune, if you like, the third game -changer, was the snap election called by Theresa May last year. She hoped it might give her more room for manouevre, instead it left her dependent on the DUP. And we've seen the consequences of that in the DUP's intervention in the Brexit talks last year, which has left the government with three incompatible imperatives.
It has promised the Irish government that there will be no hard border.
It has promised the DUP that there will be no customs border in the Irish Sea
And it has promised its own backbenchers that Britain will be leaving the customs union and the single market.
Now you can pick any two of those three and you can probably be reconcile them. But it seems pretty much impossible to reconcile them all.
Theresa May has been quite keen to kick the can down the road and deal with the issue of the border as part of the future relationship agreement, which may well not come until after Brexit has happened.
The Irish Government wants it dealt with in the Withdrawal Agreement, which has to be signed before Brexit.From the Irish side, although the border has huge economic implications, particularly for Agriculture as does east-west trade, the key imperative is political. To maintain the commitments that were made in Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement, to maintain that all-Ireland dimension that many nationalists felt they were voting for when they voted for the Agreement.
Theresa May has conceded significant ground to that demand. In the joint report in December, it was agreed that:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
This is the so-called backstop agreement: Now the EU issued its own legal text to give effect to that in February, but that was rejected by the UK. The UK has nevertheless accepted that there has to be a backstop agreement, but it hasn’t issued its own text of what that should look like.
The UK would basically prefer to focus on the alternative solutions, some kind of technical solution or a solution through the future relationship. All of those options are up for discussion in talks in Brussels at the moment and its being reported that the UK is not really offering anything new.
And that stand-off is basically where we are. A rational approach for the UK might be to accept the backstop for now, on the basis that there will be a future relationship deal so it won’t need to be implemented. But that of course, will constrain the UK’s room for manoeuvre down the line to go for a harder Brexit. So Theresa May may well try to test EU solidarity with Ireland, in a sort of game of chicken as we get closer to Brexit.
I'd like to finish by focusing on some key issues for Labour going forward:
Firstly, how is the political process going to be advance in Northern Ireland?
There is likely to be a new push to get the assembly back after Foster's RHI hearing. If that fails, the Irish government may push for an inter-governmental conference. That doesn’t give the Irish government huge power, but it would show the two governemnts were still committed to the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. That maybe something that Tony Lloyd could consider supporting.
Secondly: What is the role for Westminster going to be in terms of dealing with the outstanding issues? Many of those issues, like dealing with the past are going to be difficult to deal with through a Commons with a Conservative/DUP majority.
One exception might be the Equal Marriage bill being put forward by Conor McGinn. That will need government co-operation if it is to get parliamentary time. There needs to be pressure so that it's clear whether that is forthcoming or not.
Thirdly: Another issue that Labour needs to keep on eye on in Northern Ireland is the boundary review. The initial proposals were very favourable to Sinn Fein, which meant in practice that the whole UK wide boundary review was likely to fall because the DUP would vote against it.
There is now a revised proposal which is very favourable to the DUP, and that means the Tories will have a much better chance of getting the UK wide boundary review through.
Finally of course, there is Brexit.
In one respect, Keir Starmer has been shadowing the Government in that he has rejected the EU’s backstop wording.
On the other hand, he has committed to trying to put the commitment to no hard border into domestic legislation, and that would be a very constructive thing to do. Anything that Labour does to keep open the customs union and single market options will make it easier to solve this issue.
And that should be a key consideration. The Good Friday Agreement is a Labour achievement, and Labour needs to fight for it to be implemented. Right now, under Theresa May, it isn’t being.