The Belfast Agreement

Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), the 19th century German military strategist, is reputed to have said that “War was simply politics using other weapons. ” Over many centuries in Ireland phases of one or the other and combinations of both have waxed and waned in pursuance of claims for National Independence, Freedom, Sovereignty – the arguments intertwined with religious doctrine and affiliations.

The Treaty settlement, coupled with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, transferred the divisions within the island into a smaller geographical area – six of the nine Ulster counties were designated as Northern Ireland This ‘statelet ’ functioned with a mini-parliament for about 50 years within overall UK jurisdiction.

Historically, either by accident or design, in treaties which bring an end to hostilities (whether civil or between states), by the terms imposed by the winners, seeds of further difficulties take root and grow. The way the Stormont government functioned during its tenure aggravated the differences in the society and the history of the past 30 years starkly illustrates the need to create better governmental structures if the two contending communities are to peacefully co ‑habit and progress. These must minimise the friction and turbulence between the differing traditions and perceptions of identity within the Northern Ireland polity. This is how one must approach any consideration of the Belfast Agreement of April 10th 1998.

It is significant and salutary to remember that 200 years ago the United Irishmen, dissenting Presbyterians and Protestants together with Catholic citizens, attempted to take control of Ireland in an armed revolt which failed. In effect the Belfast Agreement can be seen as an attempt to unite their descendants in the Six Counties within a common democratic format, bringing together those bitterly divided groups into an acceptable working relationship.

It is also important to note that the Agreement was concluded just before the Easter Weekend when Nationalists were due to commemorate the Rising, although Easter Monday in 1916 was on April 24th. The Orange marching season also begins at Easter, which made it so necessary to reach the stipulated deadline. This concentrated the minds of the negotiators and governments so that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern became major players as heads of their respective administrations.

The weekend the negotiations were completed I had started reading a book The End Game, subtitled The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland. Written by David McKittrick, ‘Ireland Correspondent ’ of The Independent, a native of Northern Ireland, it covered the period 1989 –1994 (the Conservative, Peter Brookes, was Secretary of State, Northern Ireland, 1989). I was half way through it before I received a copy of the Agreement as presented to the House of Commons and distributed to every household in Northern Ireland.

The End Game contains reports, opinions and interviews with representatives of organisations during five of his many years as a journalist in the Province as events turned, twisted and erupted, between hope or despondence, not to mention despair.

The book ’s last section was dated August 13th 1994, when talk of the first IRA Ceasefire was in the air – it came at the end of the month. McKittrick concluded his book with a sense of hope, conveyed in the last two paragraphs:

“It has been a terrible 25 years, with all those people being despatched to premature graves. With luck, we may be at a juncture where the conflicting currents can, finally, be drawn together in a new synthesis; when belief in politics overcomes belief in the gun; when assassins no longer sledgehammer down doors and shoot people in their beds.

A great many people have learnt lessons during the past quarter of a century, often the hard way. Hopefully, if the Troubles really do end, the most lasting lesson is that Northern Ireland has more than its fair share of widows and orphans and needs no more of them.”

This first ceasefire came to an end with a huge London bomb after 18 months, the killings and punishment beatings continued and even now, with a second IRA Ceasefire in place and an Agreement on the table, they spasmodically still occur. Nevertheless, the two paragraphs quoted above are a useful and fitting base from which to start assessing whether, in the document, we have reached a new beginning and a final end to thirty bloody years of travail.

All those who participated in the negotiations pledged support for their outcome, subject to their organisations ratifying the proposals. The SDLP, the Loyalist groups and the Alliance Party anticipated that their members would endorse them. The Ulster Unionist Executive and their 800 special conference delegates decisively voted to accept. Sinn Féin discussed them shortly afterwards at the Ard Fheis (annual conference), and decided on a ‘Yes’ vote, on the recommendation of their ruling executive, at their special meeting on May 10th. With the removal of the policy of abstentionism their elected members of the new Assembly will be free to participate fully, made easier in that the pledge of office does not appear to require allegiance to the Crown but, in effect, to the Agreement. However, as Item (b) in the pledge is a commitment to non violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means the decommissioning question raises some doubts about their participation in Power‑sharing.

Only Paisley's DUP and McCartney’s UK Unionist Party, who both stayed outside the negotiations, are actively campaigning for a ‘No’ vote, but there is a section of Ulster Unionist Westminster MPs who are expected to join their camp.

The Orange Order, following a meeting of their representatives with Tony Blair, are still opposed to acceptance and appear to be leaving it to members to make their own decisions so that they too will be split, though how the yes/nos divide percentage‑wise among them is problematical. The IRA has issued a statement stating that although the Agreement is significant they cannot accept it but recommending that the advice of Nationalist political leaders should be followed. But they too have splinter groups.

With Ulster Unionists claiming that the Union is safeguarded whilst Sinn Féin say that it is weakened and is in transition to a United Ireland voters may be confused and uncertain. The result may ultimately hinge on the simple desire to achieve an end to violence and on whether the Agreement seems likely to do so.

The Agreement has had a long gestation period, starting with the Brookes initiative in 1989, the Hume – Adams discussions and proposals (still unpublished), and, as part of the scenario, secret discussions (denied by Government spokespersons at the time) by the IRA and Sinn Féin with British Conservative Government representatives. Then came the Major/Reynolds Declaration of 15th December 93 and the Conservative and Irish governments’ Framework for the Future in 1995. Unionists were suspicious of the latter, believing that it had some connection with the Hume/Adams proposals and they tore it up at a press conference. The 1993 and 1995 documents, as well as the Belfast Agreement all clearly state that any change in the status of Northern Ireland is conditional on a vote of the people of Northern Ireland agreeing to a change. In all three documents also is an understanding that Articles 2/3 of the Irish Republic’s 1937 Constitution requires to be amended to remove the legal claim to jurisdiction and to accept the principle of consent.

In the Agreement of 10th April 1998 the Irish Government gives the wording of the new substituted Articles 2/3 as follows:

Article 2

It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. This is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with the people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

Article 3 will now read:

(1) It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with a consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions of the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament that existed immediately before the coming into operation of the Constitution.

(2) Institutions with executive powers and functions that are shared between those jurisdictions may be established by their respective responsible authorities for stated purposes and may exercise powers and functions in respect of all or any part of the island.

In effect, the legal claim of 32 county sovereignty is dropped and becomes an aspiration subject to an affirmative vote in both jurisdictions. It also means that Partition is not confirmed for all time as Unionists wanted, although it is subject to a decision of the Northern Ireland electorate, whatever may be the desire or vote in the Republic.

The British Government, in return for these changes, has agreed to repeal the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which enacted Partition.

These, being constitutional arrangements between the two governments, also contain proposals in Annex A whereby change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status may be effected.

Under Schedule 1 of this Annex, power is given to the Secretary of State, Northern Ireland, if at any time it appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a United Ireland, then a Poll can be held. This may not be done again (I assume if not carried) until seven years have elapsed. There is no provision as to what majority would be required, which would be a contentious argument – in my own view a very substantial majority would be necessary to make the change viable and substantial.

The proposed Assembly will have 108 members elected via Proportional Representation, using the single transferable vote system – six members for each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. It will exercise full legislative and executive authority in respect of those matters currently within the responsibility of the six Northern Ireland government departments, with the possibility of taking on further. Provision is made to ensure that the Committee Chairs, Ministries and Committees are held in proportion to party strength and that key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis, including the election of the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Assembly.

Executive authority will be discharged, on behalf of the Assembly, by a First Minister and Deputy who will be elected by the Assembly, and by up to ten ministers with departmental responsibilities. Cross‑community considerations will operate in respect of election and appointment.

The Assembly will be required to function in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland which is to be enacted into Northern Ireland law via Westminster legislation, with direct access to the courts to deal with any breaches which may occur, including the power to overrule Assembly legislation not consistent with the Convention or the Bill of Rights.

There will also be a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, established by Westminster legislation, independent of government, able to consult, recommend and examine draft legislation referred to it by the Assembly. Parallel action will be taken by the Irish Government; it is envisaged that a Joint Forum will be established to consider Human Rights in the whole island, aiming to ensure that the same level of protection is attained in both jurisdictions.

I have some reservations about the electoral provisions. In the Forum, from which the negotiators were drawn, provision was made for additional members, based on the percentage of vote obtained, which enabled the Loyalist groups and the Women’s Coalition to gain representation, which in the event performed a valuable role in the final agreement. Because of the composition of the constituencies, where there are large percentage groupings of the two main communities, I’m concerned that there will not be the same opportunity for these smaller groupings to achieve representation. I would myself have preferred a single Northern Ireland constituency and a Party List system which would have given the smaller groupings an opportunity to maximise support.

It was, however, too much to expect. As the larger parties in the negotiations were looking to their own electoral interests they were unlikely to consider other groups. In operation there may be problems but there is provision whereby a review can take place to deal with such matters.

In the election to the Assembly (assuming there is a ‘Yes’ vote in the Referendum) it will be interesting to see if there is any cross-community voting as the Unionist camp will be split three ways.

The Nationalist / Republican vote will also have a problem to contend with, especially in West Belfast, where Unionist voters can influence the result. We may get some pointers as to what sort of spread the representation will take when the Referendum is held if, as anticipated, the vote is counted and announced in each constituency as was done in the Welsh Assembly referendum.

The contentious issues which will confront the operation when the Assembly is set up will be the progress towards decommissioning, the proposed Police Review likely to be headed by the former Governor of Hong Kong and Conservative minister, Chris Patten, and the thorny question of security and the release of prisoners.

I have not commented on these as they are all conditional upon the proposals receiving a ‘Yes’ vote and there are other aspects which time and space do not allow to be considered.

In summary I would say that the Agreement is what the negotiators were prepared to accept or concede and are not what an objective enquiry might after deep analysis recommend.

It solidifies the community divide into the governmental structures whereas in my view what is required is a breakdown in the mind sets of embattled communities which a single constituency might have facilitated.

It will be a very difficult initial period with visions and memories of the past thirty years souring relationships.

The Anglo Irish Agreement 1985 has been set aside. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is set aside. The Articles 2/3 of the Irish Republic’s constitution will be amended. Direct Rule will be ended and a new form of devolved government, entirely different from the old Stormont, will come into operation. A Bill of Rights will be enacted. A new British – Irish Agreement will be developed. Joint cross‑border institutions will be set up. A British – Irish Council will be established, consisting of representatives from both governments and from the devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man and any other devolved assemblies which may be set up in the future.

Had such an agreement been in operation in the last eighty years events would not have been so horrendous and tragic.

All in all it is a compromise and will require goodwill and determination to make it work. With Sinn Féin joining the ‘Yes’ campaign a ‘Yes’vote should be secured – the majority will depend on how effective the Ulster Unionists are in marshalling their strength on the ground despite their MPs defecting to the Paisley ‘No’ camp.

The proposals contained in the Document, analysed objectively, are neither Orange nor Green, they contain elements of importance to both communities sufficient to assure parity of esteem and equality of opportunity to participate in building a new consensus and democratic future. They are a sort of pink grapefruit, with a slightly bitter taste for many, but bearing in mind the alternative, starkly set out in David McKittrick”s book, The End Game, which I quoted earlier, my compatriots in Northern Ireland and in the Republic must end the conflict with weapons and engage in Democratic Politics inside the Framework which they have shaped together.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, UK.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer, 1998.

Samuel H. Boyd