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Did We Barter Articles 2 And 3 For No Stormont And No Good Friday Agreement?

Concerns are growing that we may be witnessing a terminal collapse in the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, a series of binding accords between the political parties in the north-east of Ireland and the Irish and British governments. The GFA effectively ended three decades of post-colonial conflict in the Six Counties while serving as the basis for power-sharing in the region. For nineteen years it has helped maintain some degree of peace between the northern nationalist and unionist communities, while encouraging positive diplomatic relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Its loss, if that is what we are seeing, has the potential to heat up a largely frozen war, despite the widely held belief that there is “no going back” to the bloody era of civil rights agitation, insurgency and counter-insurgency which characterised the period from 1966 to 2005.

To the surprise of many, the SDLP, the minority northern nationalist party and formerly a major architect of the GFA, seems to be arguing for a move away from the Belfast settlement and towards some form of joint-authority in the region between the national governments in Dublin and London. Ideally, this would involve both nation-states pooling their jurisdiction over the last remnant of the British colony on the island, though it might also necessitate a return of the local assembly and executive, albeit in a reduced role. Sinn Féin meanwhile is making no commitments beyond a determination to implement the Good Friday Agreement in full, as originally envisioned two decades ago and in several subsequent pacts. This would require the establishment of true parity of esteem between the majority populations in the Six Counties and the development of substantive all-Ireland institutions. Both positions are anathema to British unionism regardless of background, and the leading Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is already warning of a “bitter” election campaign to come, one where it will whip up communal and sectarian sentiment among its own base.

However if the local Stormont assembly and executive is permanently collapsed, or greatly altered in form and function, where does this leave the concessions made by Ireland and its citizens in the peace deals of 1998? In return for an end to the conflict, the so-called Troubles, Irish nationalism as a whole volunteered a number of domestic constitutional changes in a series of carefully choreographed steps with a war-weary Britain. These were of huge significance, not least the alterations to Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Irish constitution. These clauses originally – and justifiably – read as follows:

“Article 2

The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.

Article 3

Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the parliament and government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory, the laws enacted by the parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstát Éireann[10] and the like extra-territorial effect.”

The amendments of the late 1990s altered the above wording to a more limited definition of the Irish nation-state, one explicitly in line with the accords signed under the umbrella of the Good Friday Agreement:

“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. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

Article 3

3.1. 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 the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution 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 this Constitution.

3.2 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.”

The booklet produced by the Referendum Commission for The Good Friday Agreement Referendum in 1998 (Image: Irish Election Literature)

The legal conditions governing the constitutional changes were spelled out by the official Referendum Commission in a publication released in the run-up to the plebiscite, in May of 1998. Note the careful phrasing of the document:


The proposed changes to the Constitution will not come into effect unless the people agree in the referendum on 22nd May. If there is a majority yes vote, then the changes wilt not come into effect immediately. Their implementation is dependent and conditional on the necessary measures being undertaken to implement all the provisions of the Multi-Party Agreement.”

Many observers are convinced that we are witnessing an unravelling of the different strands making up the complex Belfast accords, including the local multi-party agreement and the associated international treaty between Ireland and the UK. This unravelling has a direct impact on the legitimacy of the changes to Articles 2 and 3, the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The alterations were voted for in a national referendum on the 22nd of May 1998 with an unprecedented 94% majority in favour. However the two clauses, though passed into law on the 3rd of June, did not come into effect until the 2nd of December 1999, a year and a half later. This required a formal declaration by the Irish government, one that was contingent on other aspects of the Belfast Agreement being implemented first.

It is clear then that the alterations to Articles 2 and 3 were conditional on the establishment of regional, intra-communal government in the Six Counties, as well other factors. With that regional government now in peril, and with the United Kingdom threatening to tear up several key aspects of the Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of the Brexit commitments given to its own people, one must ask. Are the 1998 treaties now worth the paper they were written on? With Britain potentially reneging on the peace settlement of the 1990s and early 2000s do we get back the original Articles 2 and 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the ones that our political leaders seem to have bartered away for nothing more than twenty odd years of respite from violence coupled with British and unionist unfaithfulness and intransigence?

If there is no implementation of “…all the provisions of the Multi-Party Agreement” or a substantial rolling back of the implementation, then arguably the Irish state can no longer argue that the Belfast Agreement is still in effect. The question will soon be, what next?


23 comments on “Did We Barter Articles 2 And 3 For No Stormont And No Good Friday Agreement?

  1. Totally share your worries Seamas about the changes in arts 2 and 3 and the coming repercussions.
    As I think the whole GFA/Belfast Agreement business is unravelling if indeed it was ever woven or knit together in the first place.

    As far as regards ” the establishment of true parity of esteem between the majority populations in the Six Counties” –
    I have no idea how this would ever be/would ever have been achieved, bar a Chinese/N.Korean -type brainwashing campaign.Instead of marching up through Ardoyne we would need Orangemen and their hangers-on sitting in a field chanting “Taigs have rights just like me”

    The whole problem comes down to numbers – in the UK with a population of about 60 million DUP types count for naught. In an all-Ireland population of 5 million odd DUP-types count for naught. In Northern Ireland with a population of about 1.5 million, where DUP types constitute about half of the total, they count for a lot.

    Time to free them, us and others from the prison they have constructed for us all!

  2. An_Madra_Mór

    To reinstate the old articles 2 and 3 would require a referendum. A referendum that would never pass!!

    • Indeed. The question about Articles 2 and 3 was largely rhetorical though it makes the basic point. We put peace before principle but in return for what?

  3. the Phoenix

    Changes in articles 2 an 3 were an act of treason. There should have been a single 32 county referendum on independence and unity. PSF sold out. Any real republican could have told you that 20 years ago.

    • TurboFurbo

      Looking forward to your organising a binding 32 county referendum Phoenix.

      Let us know the date so we can prepare.
      Good lad.

      By the way, they say every Irish leader from Strongbow, Tone, Emmet, O’Connell, Parnell, Casement, Collins and De Valera were all British agents……can you please confirm.

      Good lad.

      • the Phoenix

        Firstly,Strongbow? I think you should re-read your history. As for my accusations against MMG, even if he wasn’t a British agent in the past he certainly works for the British state now. MMG calls republicans traitors and criminals,supports the rus/psni,calls for republicans to be imprisoned,says nothing about treatment of republicans in Maghaberry,tries to normalise the monarchy,supports commemorating Irishmen who fought in British army. If that isn’t a British agent I don’t know what is.

        • TurboFurbo

          Exceptionally poor attempted rebuttal – even by your woeful standards.

          • the Phoenix

            Ironic considering you couldn’t respond to a single thing i said. Your knowledge of McGuinness is as poor as your knowledge of history.

            • TurboFurbo

              You contradicted yourself so many times it’s difficult to know where to start.
              You first claimed that Martin McGuinness was a British agent – and then when a small bit of pressure was applied to your “Thesis”, you folded and rescinded your claim.

              You yourself have proven yourself to be a bluffer.
              Be off.

              • the Phoenix

                I rescinded my claim??? When did I do that? I stand by everything I have ever said about MMG.

      • the Phoenix

        As for a 32 county referendum I don’t have the power or leverage McGuinness had 20 years ago when he could have made that a demand in return for decommisioning. He didn’t. A real republican would have. Today your republican hero McGuinness is recognising partition by calling for a partitionist 6 county referendum he knows will fail.

        • TurboFurbo

          An even worse attempted rebuttal – you are a bluffer with absolutely nothing to offer.
          Be off you loser.

          • A binding all-Island referendum, in 1997? Really? MMG had that power in return for decommissioning? Got to admit that’s news to me and I remember that period well.

            • the Phoenix

              With a still armed and powerful PIRA the shinners could’ve demaded a lot. They settled for little.

              • I don’t know though. The broad shape of the situation was fairly clear. The British security apparatus was able to largely contain PIRA at that point – not entirely, obviously, but sufficiently for ‘an acceptable level…’ PIRA could continue to mount operations – but compare and contrast surveillance ten years prior to that, then and ten years after (particularly post 9/11) and I think the writing was on the wall for the previous approaches and new ones that would have the same pressure or more (because more would be necessary to get an even better accommodation) .

                And then there’s a further problem. This depends on the British to be the prime mover, i.e. impose their writ in the north over unionism to the extent that unionism would accept/tolerate/not react to being given the boot. I just don’t think that’s likely given the nature of the relationships and self-perceptions of all the people involved. At a minimum the UK state would have to regard itself as having some duty of responsibility (even rhetorical) over them and much more importantly (given that we’re all cynical of the very idea of that duty of responsibility the UK state might or might not have) being seen to have that duty of care. Even given the rubbish approach of Dublin in relation to northern republicans/nationalists over the years it would be near enough impossible for it to cut all ties with them now and leave them to their own devices, why think it would be easier, or more likely for the British to do so in regard to unionism.

                There’s another point too, why would SF settle for less than it could get which is your basic argument? What would possess them to act like that? Everyone went into this attempting to carve out as much space as possible for their set of goals to be achieved. Why would an SF that was keen to shape the overall dispensation to the maximum degree achievable do anything other than make the best effort it could? And that raises uuestions as to how much use an armed and powerful PIRA was at that point beyond its simple existence. A high profile operation could be mounted, albeit with difficulty, and we know it was difficult because there weren’t so many of them (I’m thinking of ones in England) so that happens as a bit of instructive example to encouarage others to accept SF goals, talks collapse, trust is lost. It has to be rebuilt, that takes time, how many times could that occur before the process itself fell apart? Then everything has to restart but at a later date and time which might not be so great.

                I’m not disputing that some minor modifications to the overall dispensation might have been possible but the idea that Britain would stand over what you suggest just doesn’t seem to me to be plausible. I don’t buy quite into history is the way it is because it is the way it is line, but… there were a lot more forces at work than just the British or PIRA in all this and still are.

          • the Phoenix

            Typical shinner. All insults and no debate. You lot cling to your perpetual leaders and run from the truth and opposing opinions. Little wonder so many have gotten wise to yous and left P$£

            • TurboFurbo

              Phoenix :

              1. You claim to be a “real Republican” – but when pressed you have nothing to offer except contradictions and claims which you then rescind upon the application of the slightest bit of pressure.

              2. Your failure to counter “World by Storm” ‘s excellent post above speaks volumes as he tears your childish assertions apart by sheer force of logic – clearly, you have neither the intellect, capacity or argument to mount any kind of rebuttal.

              You are a fraud and a loser.

              Be off with you.

              • the Phoenix

                Exactly you have no examples to offer. You have obviously undergone the PSF lobotomy. As a shinner you aren’t used to contrary opinions as you never hear them. You insult and run from debate just like when eirigi offered to debate PSF publicly and you shinners cowards that you are still haven’t responded to the offer in 7 years. I have obviously touched a nerve by outing your great hard man of a leader. And I will continue to do so. You shinners have tried to intimidate republicans and tried to keep them quiet. Doesn’t work anymore. Your day is done.

              • Phoenix, in fairness, no one is being intimidated here and you are being given plenty of room to air your opinions. I fundamentally disagree with some – perhaps many – of them but you still have a right to express them. However, as with the McGuinness conspiracy theory, you are going to get a vigorous response to some of the more outrageous stuff.

                However, at a time like this, when an assembly election and Brexit looms, republican solidarity is more pressing than recriminations, perceived or real. You might disagree with SF but better an SF-led executive in the occupied north in terms of the greater republican project.

            • Don’t believe World By Storm is a shinner nor insulted anyone… …just sayin’

    • Pat murphy

      And many did. A lot of whom are now interned. Now the chickens have come home to roost we will wait and see what happens.

  4. The 26 county State paid lip service to the occupation of the 6 counties and the chance to be rid of it while on the one hand looking like they had found a “Solution” that would appease both parties. A real agreement would have stated that the Republic of Ireland would take sovereignty within a defined period of say 20 years. The idea of a minority of Unions in the in the 6 counties dictating to the Irish people is like the white Rhodesians telling the blacks to wait 1000 years.
    The DUP and their fellow bigots were then in the short term keen to get some of the action from the pyramid scheme called the “Celtic Tiger”. The Brits pulled a fast on in 1922 and did the same in 1998. Agin aided by incompetent Irish politicians who appear to have an Uncle Tom mentality of wanting to be patted on the head by their Colonial Masters,

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