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:
The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.
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 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:
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.
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 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:
“3. THE CONDITIONS UNDER WHICH THE PROPOSED CHANGES MAY BE IMPLEMENTED
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?