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Opinion

2023 is a crucial year for Northern Ireland’s future

As the Good Friday Agreement turns 25, 2023 is set to be a critical year for the future of Northern Ireland

Jarlath Kearney, Northern Ireland political expert

Picture a Venn diagram with two interconnecting circles: on the left, the independent Irish state; on the right, the extant United Kingdom (UK). At the centre, joining both circles, lies Northern Ireland (NI). 

In April 1998, the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement was reached between the Ireland and UK governments and the majority of NI’s political parties. It was later described as a “constitution for Northern Ireland” by the UK Law Lords (now Supreme Court). 

A devolved power-sharing Assembly and Executive bound the complex constitutional settlement, alongside equality and rights reforms, justice reforms, strong intergovernmental linkages and a mechanism for future constitutional change.

The politics isn’t presently working. Since elections in May, the Assembly has met just five times. During these unsuccessful recall sittings, the word “reconciliation” has been uttered only once in the chamber (citing someone else’s quote).

Despite NI’s history of devastating conflict, reconciliation is increasingly absent from political discourse. The silence tells a tale.

Brexit fundamentally destabilised the 1998 Agreement. That’s when the UK model began to crack, and identity politics reignited in NI.

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Currently, the majority of political unionism (representing around 30 per cent of voters), wants to determine UK negotiations on the Brexit Protocol with the EU. It insists that the power-sharing Assembly will only be restored if unionist demands are met. This is partly the ripple of societal insecurities as new demographic realities are dawning. Yet it ignores potentially lucrative dual UK-EU market opportunities for NI. The new year will force choices.

Conversely, traditional Irish republicanism is campaigning for a referendum on Irish unity that currently has no foreseeable prospect of success. It calls for an all-Ireland citizens’ assembly on unity, but doesn’t address the consequences of unilateral Irish government action on internal UK policy issues or the
legitimacy of processes that can’t command inclusiveness. 

(In any event, the 1998 Agreement ceded all authority over calling any referendum to the UK government. This is relevant in the context of November’s Supreme Court ruling on Scotland.)

Both sides have historically weaponised the Assembly’s stability for political traction. Its full potential has never been universally defended. Yet the institution remains critical to the island’s future constitutional architecture. 

Sensible EU-UK reforms are undoubtedly needed to manage Brexit’s colossal (and unwanted) impact in NI. Resolution should not be as difficult as it sometimes appears. Likewise, much greater prudence is required from those promoting wholesale constitutional change in Ireland. Their roadmap needs more than rhetoric. 

The Irish government’s approach to building a Shared Island Initiative, focused strategically on substantial cross-border funding and intensive interpersonal engagements, is, while unspectacular, aligned with Ireland’s constitutional imperative to “unite all the people” of the island.

New census results in September confirmed that NI’s 1.9 million population is shifting profoundly. In 2021, the British-only identity continued to shrink (31.9 per cent). “Island of Ireland” identities – Irish (29.1 per cent) and Northern Irish (19.8 per cent) – present additional challenges. 

Disgruntlement with the UK status quo does not equate to any automatic support for constitutional change. Likewise, the majority of southern Irish support for romantic, simplistic notions of unification seems to dim when the requisite transformation is considered.

These trends are broadly affirmed by all major polling and surveys, notably the research by The Irish Times/ARINS academic project released in December.

Constitutional sovereignty in NI is stable. A referendum isn’t likely anytime soon. But constitutional evolution of some description is, by definition, inevitable. This conversation will continue.

Northern Ireland is now a region of minorities. Coexistence demands cooperation, compromise across boundaries, partnership through persuasion, an acknowledgement of interdependence. A younger, politically fluid demographic is more likely motivated by issues than identities, by hard evidence than historical emotion. Reconciliation, rights, and respect need to be prioritised, just as they were during the intensive constitutional talks before the 1998 Agreement. London and Dublin (and Washington) must re-engage.

And yet, the impact on NI stability of UK government agendas with little care for consequence can – like Brexit – still be profound, such as recent “on-off” assaults to abolish the Human Rights Act. The Act implements a key UK commitment in the 1998 Agreement. NI’s rule of law has largely seen progress over 25 years. Yet proposals to abolish the Act routinely dismiss obvious societal impacts.

Constitutional transformation will ultimately be marked by evolution, not revolution. Nuance and complexity are steadily unwrapping the old binary comfort blankets of Irish nationalist or British unionist identities. 

Patience, prudence, and partnership mark the leadership needed to navigate shifting sands in 2023.

Jarlath Kearney is a strategy adviser and media contributor

This article appears in The Big Issue magazine. Buy a copy from your local vendor.If you can’t buy in person, you can purchase magazines from The Big Issue Shop or download a digital version via The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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