Post-Agreement Northern Ireland: New opportunities or unresolved stalemate?

Post-Agreement Northern Ireland: New opportunities or unresolved stalemate
by Allan LEONARD
17 December 2008

Does the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or the subsequent 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement, represent a means of conflict management between stalemated unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, or does the environment of peace itself provide an opportunity to pursue a more ‘ordinary’ form of politics, for greater prosperity and fairness for the wider population?

Seamus Mallon, from the (Irish) nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), famously described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. This was in reference to the 1974 power-sharing agreement, which saw executive powers devolved to a coalition among his party, the (British) Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the (cross-community) Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. This power-sharing government collapsed, at least partly due to the lack of significant consensus among the unionist community.

Few would have thought then that it would take nearly a quarter of a century to achieve greater consensus for power sharing.

This essay examines, only briefly, some of the factors involved in process of political agreement for government in Northern Ireland: (1) inclusivity; (2) the viability of peaceful politics over political violence; (3) a basis of non-violent negotiations; and (4) the role of constructive ambiguities. What remains is the current debate on whether Northern Ireland’s future is one of an uneasy (but hopefully nonviolent) tolerance of segmented communities, or the seizing of an opportunity to pursue what is discussed as “a shared and better future”, where politicians and residents undertake new efforts to work together, while respecting (or even celebrating) societal diversity.


One explanation why the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners” is that if only (Protestant) unionist politicians would have worked harder to lead their constituents to the righteousness of sharing power with (Catholic) nationalists, then the misery of the intervening 24 years could have been avoided.

Of course, this ignores the dynamics of not only internal unionist politics, but also the rationales that were applied to justify violence across the whole political spectrum.

At the time, there was real tension within the UUP. As some unionists saw the situation, the compromises with the Irish Free State had been made in 1925, and the proper course of action by both governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland was to respect the agreed border and leave the Northern Ireland government to manage its own affairs unfettered. The discussion alone of a role for the Irish Government in Northern Ireland matters (e.g. via a Council of Ireland) was enough to jeopardise progress of political reform within Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, when it became clear that the majority of unionists did not support the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangement, it became untenable.

Under subsequent direct rule Northern Ireland government, whereby legislative matters were addressed at Westminster in London, and executive matters through ministers appointed by the British Prime Minister, repeated efforts were made to encourage a majority unionist community to return to power-sharing government with nationalists.

The philosophy during this time, from 1974 through to the Brooke-Mayhew talks of 1989-1992, was to have some consensus around a “centre ground”, which meant namely nationalist SDLP, centrist Alliance, and unionist UUP. After all, this was what was possible originally, so hopefully only minor modifications would be required to get devolved government going again.

But there were two key events that would make this centre-ground approach ever more difficult: the 1981 hunger strikes and the unionist reaction to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The 1981 hunger strikes had the effect of increased societal polarisation and new nationalist (republican) participation. A demonstration of polarisation was the drop in support by “soft nationalist” Alliance supporters (i.e. those voters who floated from SDLP and Alliance); such supporters would have felt compelled to give primary support to moderate nationalism.

After the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the UUP formed an electoral pact with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and caused a province-wide by-election in 1987. Here, some “soft unionist” Alliance supporters (i.e. those voters who floated from UUP and Alliance) actually increased their support for Alliance at this election. This may be explained by such supporters’ negative response to the UUP’s hard-line reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the UUP’s support for the “Ulster Says No” campaign. Yet as the UUP would mollify its position on power sharing, such supporters would likewise feel compelled to give primary support to moderate unionism.

Viability of peaceful politics

The reconciliation of peaceful politics with political violence is always a fundamental challenge.

Within nationalist politics, talks between John Hume (leader, SDLP) and Gerry Adams (president, Sinn Féin) were initiated in 1988. Although these talks broke down after a few months, there were discovered again in spring 1993. Again, these publicly known discussions between two political leaders did not lead to a direct or immediate breakthrough, but it clearly demonstrated reconciliation among political rivals. For John Hume, the motivation was to remove the gun from Irish politics.

One negative, or at least realpolitik, result of the Hume-Adams Talks was the belief that Hume was ensuring no political agreement would be made without the inclusion of a republican/Sinn Féin dimension. This was the reason given by participants in the Brooke-Mayhew Talks (Leonard 1999, 40), and explained by David Bloomfield (1998, 123): at one plenary session, on 26 June 1991, John Hume said that “Dublin involvement in Northern affairs could be more ‘indirect’ if the SDLP could more directly represent nationalist concerns in the internal arrangement of Northern Ireland.” Peter Robinson (DUP) attempted to get Hume to be more specific, likely because Robinson saw this as an opportunity to achieve a power-sharing government that excluded Sinn Féin. Hume did not reply in kind; this event was probably a last chance for a power-sharing arrangement based on a voluntary coalition.

In any event, the ceasefires of the Irish Republican Army (31 August 1994), and subsequently loyalist paramilitaries, under the umbrella body of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (13 October 1994), introduced the prospect of paramilitary representation, via associated political parties, in a forthcoming political dialogue.

Political talks on the governance of Northern Ireland thus had evolved some way from a more narrowly defined “centre ground”.

Back in 1972, there was no discussion on the role of paramilitary-associated incorporation in devolved government in Northern Ireland. Now, it was inconceivable that this political dimension wouldn’t have due influence. The peace process of silencing the guns was as intertwined as the political process of a wider and more inclusive arrangement.

Non-violent negotiations

To bring in those political parties with associations with paramilitary organisations into the post-ceasefire talks process, those parties without such associations demanded a “level playing field”. This was addressed by a purposely established International Body on Decommissioning (January 1996). Participants in a talks process would have to give allegiance to the democratic norms set out in the Mitchell Principles:

  • To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues
  • To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations
  • To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission
  • To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations
  • To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree
  • To urge that “punishment” killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions

There was some debate over whether an election contested by political parties was necessary for a new talks process. The two benefits of an election, under the above circumstances, were: (1) all parties – those with and without paramilitary associations – acquired their due place by the strength of their electoral mandates; and (2) that these mandates, under oath of the Mitchell Principles, would be purely democratic. (Farry and Neeson 1999, 1234)

It is worth reviewing the unique electoral mechanism used for membership to the Northern Ireland Forum. Voters chose a party list, from which 90 members overall were allocated. The top 10 parties would get an additional 2 seats each, which resulted in providing new representation for the Progressive Unionist Party (associated with paramilitary group, Ulster Volunteer Force), the Ulster Democratic Party (associated with paramilitary group, Ulster Defence Association), the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and Labour. From an official Government perspective (Northern Ireland Office), wishing to ensure the broadest political spectrum possible, this election had its desired result.

There were also challenges in ensuring all parties abided by the Mitchell Principles during the talks process. Alliance tabled indictments against the UUP and DUP for their actions (the threat of civil disorder) at Drumcree in July 1996; against the UDP for a breach of the UDA ceasefire in January 1998; and against Sinn Féin for a breach of the IRA ceasefire in February 1998. It was up to the British and Irish Governments to decide whether to expel any party, and for how long.

The indictment against the UDP resulted in its temporary expulsion (although the party withdrew itself before the formal decision was made). Sinn Féin was also temporarily expelled.

The interesting reaction to Alliance’s indictments was that far from receiving any public thanks by parties or the governments, for ensuring the basis of non-violence and the rule of law, the party was seen as putting up obstacles to the talks process. The party’s efforts seemed to clash with the practice of “constructive ambiguity” that was taking place, particularly by government officials.

Constructive ambiguities

Jonathan Powell was British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff and chief negotiator during the Multi-Party Talks. In his publication, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, Powell describes the role of constructive ambiguity:

“In the initial stages, ambiguity is often an essential tool to bridge the gap between irreconcilable positions. The only way we could get over decommissioning at the time of the Good Friday Agreement was to make its terms ambiguous so that each side was able to interpret the Agreement as endorsing their position … But later in the process, ambiguity ceased to be constructive and became the enemy of progress. Each side began to distrust the other because it had not implemented the Agreement in accordance with their own interpretation of it … The ambiguity that had been essential at the beginning began to undermine the Agreement and discredit the government – the referee for its implementation. We then had to drive ambiguity out of the process … [because] a durable peace cannot rest on an ambiguous understanding.” (Powell 2008, 315)

One could argue that the price of squeezing out this ambiguity was the sacrifice of the UUP, particularly by the British Government in its increasing pragmatism of dealing with a surging DUP, leading ultimately to the 2007 St Andrews Agreement.

Meanwhile, the current modus operandi of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government leaves some fundamental matters of state unresolved. What has been clearly established is the principle for consent, in regards to Northern Ireland’s self-determination; its constitutional status will not change without a majority popular vote expressing such wish.

At a simplistic level, this means that unionists have secured, or at least confirmed, the Act of Union with Great Britain, while nationalists’ aspirations for a united Irish state/nation are deemed legitimate and would be put into effect. This construction does not provide any long-term, de jure, status for a place called Northern Ireland.

Yet this depends upon the desirability of a consensual Northern Ireland, which would require sufficient attachment to it as a central regime. The difficulty in Northern Ireland is that many unionists identify with a United Kingdom with London (and/or the British Crown) as its centre, or an Ireland with Dublin (and/or a parliamentary republic) as its centre.

The recent Agreements do not define any consensual national Northern Ireland regime, in terms of nationhood, a “Northern Ireland” citizenship, or symbols. Northern Ireland itself does not command an overarching loyalty by the majority of its residents. However, it is not completely absent; recent surveys report 25% of respondents identifying themselves as “Northern Irish”, across religious and ethnic divides. (Muldoon 2008) But further research is required to (a) discover how shared this identity is, and (b) how robust and resilient it is, in light of ethno-nationalist challenges.

An alternative, non-national consensus is to support the current power-sharing government regime per se, “to make the Agreement work”. The risk is that aspects of the present arrangement (e.g. required communal designations by elected representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly for voting procedures, and the lack of collective responsibility in its Executive) will institutionalise communal segregation. Both unionist and nationalist segments may mutually prefer to deliver political dispensations to their exclusive respective communities, or at least ensure that they are seen to be delivering benefits for their own community foremost.

A shared and better future?

During the first devolved power-sharing administration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in 2001, there was a formal review of community relations policy. A report was presented to the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2002, which failed to introduce any further action on the matter. Following a suspension later that year of the devolved government, direct rule minister Des Browne MP launched a public consultation document, “A Shared Future” (ASF), which asked fundamental questions about a shared way forward for the people of Northern Ireland.

ASF offered the following vision:

“Our vision for Northern Ireland is of a peaceful society in which everyone can freely and fully participate, achieve their full potential, and live free from poverty. We want a fair and effective system of government, underpinned by rights that are guaranteed for all, and responsibilities that all must share. We wish to support dialogue, and to foster mutual understanding and respect for diversity.”

ASF aims for a “shared society” … “in which people are encouraged to make choices in their lives that are not bound by historical divisions and are free to do so”; and a “pluralist society” … “with respect and tolerance for cultural diversity, where people are free to assert their identity”.

One criticism of ASF was that it was vague in parts and light in actual policy suggestions, in regards to how its proposed vision would be realised. Furthermore, some in the political community saw ASF more as a threat to their singular communal identity, than as an opportunity for mutual respect. Meanwhile, ASF was generally welcomed by voluntary and community sectors, which argued that the mere management of division and segregation hinders the ability of people to choose the “kind of community they want to live in or the kind of identity they wish to adopt”. (NICVA 2005) There were also arguments about the financial costs of the provision of duplicated or separate services, based on social segregation.

With the return of devolved Northern Ireland government, following the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement, some development of ASF policy was expected in the annual Programme for Government (PfG) commitments. What surprised many observers was the complete dropping of ASF or any community relations-based policy proposal. Instead, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) suggested working towards “a better future”, based essentially on creating wealth and prosperity for all.

Pressure from the voluntary and community sector is credited with a modification of this vision, now to embrace “a shared and better future”.

Furthermore, OFMDFM announced that they would present a public consultation on the theme of cohesion, sharing, and integration (COSI), which would address community relations policy.

Yet similar to the previous devolved government’s attempts, the publication of this consultation document has been repeatedly postponed by OFMDFM, over suspected internal disagreements. The situation was exacerbated by even greater political disharmony between the two parties of the office, DUP and Sinn Féin, which as a consequence the Northern Ireland Executive failed to meet for 152 consecutive days in 2008.

Any proposal for a shared and better future based will require strong political leadership and cross-departmental, co-ordinated action. The inability to initiate the process through a dialogue with civil society does not reflect well.

Nonetheless, there are efforts by some to attempt to foster and develop “shared and better future” concepts.

One is the “One Small Step” campaign, which asks individuals to pledge to commitments to working for the common good, reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust and human rights, and to follow up with specific actions (‘small steps’).

An example of such reaching out is the introduction of Gaelic games (traditionally played only by Catholics/nationalists) to controlled, or state, schools in Northern Ireland (which are mainly attended by Protestants/unionists). This has also occurred in some integrated, cross-community schools.

At a more official level, current Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie MLA, is committed to rolling out mixed-community housing schemes.

Another demonstration of respect for cultural diversity came from Irish President Mary McAleese, herself from Northern Ireland, who spoke to the multinational dimension of post-Agreement identities, where it is to be deemed entirely compatible to claim Irish or British citizenship in the North, to be Irish, or British, or both. President McAleese declared this at an official visit to an Orange Hall in the Republic of Ireland, to underline the point that one can be both Orange and Irish.

New politics?

Back in Northern Ireland, the political party system remains predicated on the communal and national division between Irish nationalism and British unionism. Yet there are discussions within parties about how to possibly recast themselves in a post-Agreement context.

The UUP have developed this the most. While their long historical association with the Conservative Party (UK) has been fraught with problems, there appears a greater comfortableness by some unionists to reassert a more direct link with a party that could realistically become the party of Government, for the whole of the United Kingdom.

As a matter of interest, the Labour Party (UK) does not organise or accept party membership applications from Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland-Labour supporters are campaigning for change to this policy, as well as exploring other possible party partnerships/collaborations. The Liberal Democrats (UK) have a regional branch, the Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats, whose policy is to not stand candidates in elections, in deference to the Alliance Party.

Regarding parties from the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fail has set up a unit of the party in South Armagh (in the North), with matters such as cross-border tourism within South Armagh, Monaghan and Louth up for discussion. Some within the nationalist SDLP desire a more formal linkage with Fianna Fail, à la the UUP and Conservatives. Unfortunately for such advocates in the SDLP, the sentiment hasn’t been reciprocated.

While other Southern parties, such as Fine Gael and Labour, have no organisation in Northern Ireland, it should be noted that there does exists an all-island party – Sinn Féin. However, their electoral fortunes in the Republic of Ireland pale to that in the North.

Before the onset of the Troubles, there were non-communal political parties in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Ulster Liberals were the two most significant ones. As the issue of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland came to the fore, political forces of the day caused these two parties to implode.

The question now is how much today’s post-Agreement environment represents a new era of stability (and thus ripe opportunities to pursue more imaginative forms of political organisation), or whether we’re really in an ambiguous limbo (where the threat of a border poll on Irish unification threatens to destabilise the precious peace)?

Yet it is fair to say that without the peace and political processes in Northern Ireland, with its greater inclusivity and multi-national frameworks, it is unlikely that ordinary citizens, civic society, politicians, and other leaders would be encouraged to venture into this territory of changing mindsets. That is perhaps the greatest benefit of the new dispensation, the reward of all the efforts by so many – creating the opportunities to keep working for something better, for all of us.


Bloomfield, David (1998) Political Change in Northern Ireland: The Brooke Initiative, 1989-92, London: Macmillan Press.

Farry, Stephen, and Sean Neeson (1999) “Beyond the Band-Aid Approach: An Alliance Party Perspective upon the Belfast Agreement”, Fordham International Law Journal 22 (4): 1221-1249.

Leonard, Allan (1999) “The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and Power Sharing in a Divided Society”, unpublished MA thesis, University College Dublin.

Muldoon, Orla (2008) “Beyond Gross Divisions: National and Religious Identity Combinations in Northern Ireland”, Limerick: University of Limerick (and

NICVA (2005) “A Shared Future: NICVA Briefing Paper”, Belfast:

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (2005) “A Shared Future”, Belfast: OFMDFM (

Powell, Jonathan (2008) Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London: The Bodley Head.

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