Twenty-five years ago, the parties to the Northern conflict, alongside outside mediators, put pen to paper in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement sought not only to end the most recent phase of a conflict that had been ongoing since the beginning of the century, but also lay the foundations for the future of the region.
Unfortunately, a quarter of a century later these results have not borne fruit. The new institutions put in place by the agreement have done little to address the sectarianism at the root of the conflict, with many material manifestations affecting the people of the North day to day.
Look at the Stormont Assembly for example. Created to provide representation for both communities and end direct rule from Westminster, the aim was to avoid the colonial parliament that had collapsed in 1972. While the Assembly is not the unionist-dominated one of the past, it comes with its own host of issues that render it functionally inoperable.
The Stormont Assembly is, by its nature, a sectarian institution. Its use of a consociationalist declaration system — an MLA officially declares themselves as unionist, nationalist, or other — means that parties that attempt to build cross-community initiatives are inherently disadvantaged, their votes literally counting for less.
While this group of ‘others’ may take the First Minister role, they may not take the Deputy position. Therefore, unless they are the largest group — unlikely in the current climate — and one of the community designations refuses to engage, the Assembly cannot function.
This is the scenario we find ourselves in today. The Assembly has not set in over a year, after the DUP withdrew due to their refusal to accept the Northern Ireland Protocol. Their recent refusal to accept the newer — and far more conciliatory — Windsor Framework also does not bode well.
The fact that the withdrawal of one group from the Assembly leaves the people of the north of Ireland without a government is evidence of a faulty system. And this is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Stormont has been suspended for 35 per cent of its life. Only three iterations of the Assembly have seen out their full terms. Unless this is addressed, the people of the north will continue to be held hostage by their representatives.
The other major institution established by the agreement, the police, presents a similar problem.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary) was established as a police force to represent both communities. However, the failure to do away with the old RUC, but rather to incorporate them into the new force, meant nationalists refused to engage. Considering the vindication of the collusion that many families alleged between the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries, this is hardly surprising.
Currently, the PSNI is more than 65 per cent Protestant, is the third largest police force in the UK, and the most heavily armed and militarised. The force overwhelmingly targets Catholics — the PSNI’s own data shows twice as many Catholics are targeted by stop-and-searches — and has been implicated in a litany of sectarian scandals. For example, the treatment of the body of suicide victim Jim Lennon by officers in 2012.
If the Good Friday Agreement’s purpose was to address the root causes of the conflict — sectarianism and colonialism — then it has been an abject failure. If it is instead meant to paper over the cracks without addressing the core of the problem, then it has been a resounding success.