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Does the Belfast Agreement need reforming, and can this be done now that Stormont is back?

The agreement, now more than 25 years old, is showing signs of age. So how can it be reformed, if at all? Mark Hennessy, Ireland and Britain Editor, seeks the views of experts

Nearly two decades ago, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Dr Ian Paisley created optimism when their first and deputy first minister double-act at the head of Northern Ireland’s government became known as “the Chuckle Brothers”.

Today, Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill and DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly appear to have developed a similar working relationship – lightly called “the Chuckle Sisters” – but nicknames are never as good second time around, and this one has yet to stick.

Despite the positive imagery, the 1998 Belfast Agreement – better known as the Good Friday Agreement – is showing signs of age, with reforms badly needed but difficult to bring about, while the Stormont government has failed to deliver good governance consistently, or at all.

For years, there have been calls for reform. A quick Google search offers up 23,000 such references. However, the changes most easily made are the ones least likely to bring about improvement, while the ones that might do so seem impossible to bring about.

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Deeply involved as a Northern Ireland Office official in the 1990s negotiations that led to the 1998 peace deal, Alan Whysall today maintains a strong interest from a vantage point in University College London.

In some ways, the agreement “is falling apart”, says Whysall.

“Institutional fixes are not the answer to much of the malaise. We have done quite a bit of tinkering, but whether that has followed through with results on the ground is questionable.”

Instead, Stormont needs cultural change, he argues.

“Much of the problem is not about structures, but rather culture and momentum. The assumption has been to ‘just get the institutions back up’ and all good will come from that. That’s a mistake,” he says.

So, what is needed?

First, the Assembly’s rules to elect a speaker must be changed so an election cannot be blocked by either Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party ever again. If done, it would enable the Assembly to sit, committees to operate and oversight to take place.

Most importantly, the election of a speaker and the operation of Stormont would make it less likely that either of the two main parties would again abandon their posts since their exit would not bring down the entire edifice.

Currently, such matters require a cross-community vote made up of a majority of MLAs, including a majority of those designated as unionists, or nationalists, or a 60 per cent majority including 40 per cent of both designations.

The mechanism was one of many things central to the negotiation of the agreement to deal with mostly nationalist fears then of being outvoted, but it has come to be used a tool by both Sinn Féin and the DUP to get their way.

Instead, Lisa Claire Whitten, a research fellow in politics at Queen’s University Belfast, says the increasingly large third category in Northern Ireland – those who refuse to describe themselves as green or orange but are marked as “neither” – must gain greater voice.

“We are now in a position where the ‘two-community assumption’ on which the 1998 agreement was based is no longer reflective of our demographics or, more recently, our electoral make-up here,” she said.

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP are very down on new ideas that they haven’t thought of or approved themselves. They don’t like new thinking. And we need new thinking

—  Alan Whysall, former Northern Ireland Office official now of University College London

Under her proposal, the “neither” group would be given equal weight, requiring cross-community votes to have the consent of each group, or a 60 per cent Assembly majority, with a minimum level of support from each designation.

In addition, the use of the petition of concern – where 30 MLAs from two parties can block actions – should be amended to require parties to show that the issue deeply affects people in Northern Ireland and “that it is likely to persist”.

However, Sean Haughey, a lecturer in politics and Irish studies at the University of Liverpool, argues that though non-aligned voters have been “for the last couple of years” the largest single group, that is not yet reflected in the make-up of the 90-seat Assembly, even allowing the growth of the Alliance Party.

“Neithers are statistically the least likely to vote, so that’s why the system that prioritises two identities, even though they have lost a bit of salience over the last 25 years, is able to survive for as long as it has,” he says.

“If the system prioritised the two identities a bit less, then you might get more buy-in from people who are neither unionist nor nationalist. That would be a healthy thing and would be good for democracy.”

However, changes to designation rules would upset some outside Stormont, too, with the Orange Order warning that alterations would “be a fundamental departure from the architecture of the Belfast Agreement and would have profound political and legal repercussions”.

Some “micro” changes would help, including better resources for Stormont’s committees, which are staffed by officials who have performed well in the face of extraordinary challenges and now must examine almost unmanageable volumes of European Union paperwork.

For months before Stormont’s institutions were restored in February, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin argued that reform should come after restoration, and not before.

“The issues are best looked at from a position of stability,” he said.

However, reforms – even seemingly opaque procedural ones to Stormont’s rules – reduce the power of both Sinn Féin and the the DUP, who are now back in charge.

So why should the two parties agree to changes that would affect them?

“To be honest, I think we were closer to [reform] before the Assembly was restored. London was increasingly willing to pass changes. In a way the moment has passed. If we were going to do it, we should have done it before now,” says Whitten.

Changes in voting patterns in Northern Ireland have been slower to come than they might have been because older people think that “yes, it’s not great, but it’s not what it was”, and that cultivates a level of tolerance that would be seen as surprising elsewhere, he says.

There is appetite, Haughey believes, for changing the rules around the election of the Stormont Assembly’s speaker, which prevented the elevation of the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone in the past, even though he enjoyed a majority in the chamber.

However, the rules governing the election of the First and Deputy First Minister, which now require Sinn Féin and the DUP separately to nominate candidates, will be harder to fix because both parties “do not want to modify this at all”, says the academic.

“Privately, you will hear them saying that it doesn’t make sense for them to give up a very powerful veto that both of them have been able to use in the past to their advantage when the time has necessitated it,” says Haughey.

In truth, though Sinn Féin’s fears of being excluded are greater, it is more likely that it would be the DUP which would find itself on the outside if reforms were made “because they have least in common with all of the other parties”.

In a report last year, the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee urged that the agreement should be independently reviewed, but that the work should be complemented by a citizens’ assembly.

Besides ensuring the election of a speaker, the committee proposed, too, that the First and Deputy First Ministers should be retitled as “Joint First Ministers”, and that they would be elected by a weighted majority to prevent a veto by either main party.

The DUP opposed the report, with its committee members publishing a minority paper. Just as significantly, Sinn Féin declined to give evidence. Later, it said that the institutions should be reviewed by Stormont’s Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

This body has a majority of Sinn Féin and DUP members, an outcome that was not accidental.

“That’s why I despair when SF suggests sending the reform proposals there since that is where ideas go to die,” says Whysall.

A Belfast Agreement 2.0 is unrealistic, Haughey believes, because “its original factory settings have strong democratic credentials”, unlike some of the “elitist and secretive” changes made later, such as the St Andrew’s Agreement.

That agreement, in 2006, restored the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Stormont government leading to Paisley becoming first minister and McGuinness deputy first minister

If a new version of the Belfast Agreement was ever contemplated, the expert view is that it should work alongside citizens’ assemblies to ensure that the pace is set by Northern Ireland society, not just its politicians, but such deliberative democracy was killed off in the past by Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Whysall says civic society and business must be louder, though he urges the creation of a strong independent economic body – “something like the Economic and Social Research Institute in the Republic”, but an enhanced version.

“Both [Sinn Féin and the DUP] are very down on new ideas that they haven’t thought of or approved themselves. They don’t like new thinking. And we need new thinking,” he says.

“The experience has been that if you say new things, you may displease politicians and that may not be good for you or the organisations that you lead.”

He cites two anecdotal examples he knows of where businesspeople met with political displeasure at suggestions made.

“Northern Ireland is a very, very small place,” he says. “There aren’t too many Ryanairs who can stick two fingers up to the government.”