Sam McBride: No one is marching for the Agreement, but its core principles have endured

David Trimble negotiated and then led the Ulster Unionists into supporting the Agreement, despite the party being divided on the issue
David Trimble negotiated and then led the Ulster Unionists into supporting the Agreement, despite the party being divided on the issue

For a document which had ambiguity as its core, perhaps it should be no surprise that two decades after the Belfast Agreement was signed the meaning and implications of its contents are still in dispute.

Even the name of the document was never entirely clear, with unionists mostly describing it by its official title, and nationalists favouring The Good Friday Agreement, a name also recognised by the government.

And yet, the agreement has endured as a generational settlement – even if it is a temporary one and one which has been viewed by every side at some point as deeply unsatisfactory. More than that, and for all the myriad crises which have marked its implementation, most of the core principles are now widely accepted across the political spectrum.

Power-sharing, the end of violence and paramilitary decommissioning, the principle of consent, the end of the Republic’s constitutional claim on Northern Ireland and the creation of north-south bodies are not the rocks on which Stormont is currently foundering.

Other aspects of the agreement such as the release of terrorist prisoners and the replacement of the RUC with the PSNI are still opposed by many unionists but are now so far in the past as to be irreversible.

With Stormont’s Assembly chamber now lying empty for more than a year and a political stasis which now looks open-ended, what does the 1998 deal mean in 2018?

One Ulster Unionist who was drawn to politics in the wake of the agreement and who worked at the heart of the Stormont system yesterday gloomily set out a prognosis that “we are entering post-agreement territory”, something which alarms him because he still views the 1998 deal as a template of how Northern Ireland can function as an entity which remains a part of the UK. Without that, unionists like him fear that the Province’s position within the Union is on borrowed time.

An SDLP opposite number sardonically described the deal as “too clever by half and we don’t have sufficiently clever people to work it anymore”. It was meant to evolve, he observed, but he places most blame on “an unwillingness to work it more than anything else” since the DUP and Sinn Féin took over in 2007.

Those parties counter that by pointing to the relative stability of their time in charge and the inability of their rivals to maintain devolution on their watch – although much of that was due to the actions of the IRA, something outside the ambit of either the SDLP or the UUP.

Perhaps the greatest strength – and weakness – of the deal fashioned in Castle Buildings on the Stormont Estate was its opacity. The various parties to the document projected onto it their often mutually exclusive hopes – whether a united Ireland, a strengthened Union or a reconciled Northern Ireland.

Some of those parties – in particular Sinn Féin (which did not immediately sign up to the agreement) and the SDLP – now refer to it almost as though it were written on tablets of stone. And, in the context of the Brexit negotiations the agreement is being discussed as an immutable constitutional structure which could only be superseded by a vote for a united Ireland.

In fact, the agreement has been changed multiple times over the last two decades – on most occasions with the acquiescence of the main parties and on several occasions without any controversy.

The biggest changes came as a result of the St Andrew’s Agreement where the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed that in return for republicans supporting the police and the decommissioning of IRA weapons, the DUP would in effect dropped its opposition to the agreement by agreeing to fully work the system.

At the same time, a seemingly technical change to how the first minister is elected has arguably done more than any other single act to turn assembly elections into tribal headcounts.

Later, the devolution of policing and justice powers was agreed – but with convoluted arrangements which saw the justice minister appointed outside the D’Hondt process prescribed by the original agreement text.

There have been smaller changes to the agreement – for instance in 2016 when MLAs unanimously voted to reduce their numbers from 108, as prescribed in the agreement, to 90.

That same year saw another change whereby provision was created (albeit against Sinn Féin’s wishes) for a Stormont opposition – a recognition that the absence of such a basic democratic safeguard was increasingly difficult to justify.

Whatever one’s view of any of those changes, the fact that the agreement would evolve and be changed was envisaged by those who crafted it.

Clause 36 of the deal said that “after a specified period there will be a review of these arrangements, including the details of electoral arrangements and of the assembly’s procedures, with a view to agreeing any adjustments necessary in the interests of efficiency and fairness”.

That sort of grand review could be where politics here is headed – even if it takes several years of thrashing about before the moment arrives.

There has been widespread public dissatisfaction with the form of government which the agreement delivered. Sluggish, expensive and unwieldy, successive Stormont Executives were defined more by their rows and crises than by their policy triumphs.

Despite being relentlessly populist by blocking water charges, freezing rates and ending prescription charges (much of it paid for by borrowing), successive Executives managed to be deeply unpopular.

And yet, paradoxically its dominant parties flourished — in large part out of a fear of the other side.

One anti-agreement unionist who is not involved in politics and who now views the agreement in more nuanced terms than he did at the time is nevertheless scathing about its legacy of bad government. “It was not power-sharing; it was power-dividing,” he said, alluding to the absence of a unifying policy within an Executive made up of parties which fundamentally disagree on most things – from the constitutional situation to economics and social policy.

Resolving that without undoing the principle of mandatory power-sharing is perhaps impossible.

The agreement retains a unique democratic legitimacy because it was approved by the people in all-island referenda. But those same people moved away from the parties which crafted it and, amid dissatisfaction at how devolution was operating, in last year’s election voters gave huge mandates to the DUP and Sinn Féin for stances which make Stormont’s return very difficult.

In a speech in 1998, Gerry Adams said that document had “the potential to redefine the relationship between these islands, thus concluding one phase of our struggle and opening up another one”.

Until recently, there was little evidence that the ‘new struggle’ would lead to a united Ireland . But the constitutional upheaval of Brexit and the collapse of Stormont have breathed new life into nationalism.

The agreement might not be dead, but it at least seriously ill. While no one is marching in the streets to save it, neither is there an obvious immediate alternative.