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Most Unionists Would Now Ditch the Good Friday Agreement, According to Polls

25 years of opposition to the historic peace deal by the DUP is paying off

Jeffrey Donaldson Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Photo: Reuters/Alamy

Most Unionists Would Now Ditch the Good Friday AgreementAccording to Polls

25 years of opposition to the historic peace deal by the DUP is paying off

A majority of unionists would vote against the Good Friday Agreement if the referendum was held today, according to a new opinion poll from LucidTalk. After 25 years of intransigence and opposition against the landmark peace agreement, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is beginning to see their long game pay off.

The Good Friday Agreement is lauded as one of the most successful peace agreements of the last century, securing not only cross-party support in a fraught and challenging political climate, but receiving a landslide endorsement from the people of Northern Ireland as well, with 71% voting in favour. But while the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties sat down with the British, Irish, and US negotiators in 1998 to broker an agreement, the DUP stood outside the gates of Stormont protesting against it, criticising any unionist who openly supported it.

Decades on, and the DUP is repurposing the Good Friday Agreement as political cover for their current boycott of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions, lamenting that the Northern Ireland protocol, which the party rejects, has fundamentally undermined the Agreement.

However, as former DUP leader and current MLA Edwin Poots has stated, “The DUP campaigned against the GFA, it consistently opposed and never signed it or signed up to it”. In keeping with tradition, the party’s opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol is less about the post-Brexit trade deal, and more about the party’s ultimate aim: the unravelling of Northern Ireland’s peace agreement to suit their own self-serving political agenda.

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The party’s efforts are well documented, with a particular aim at blocking the implementation of rights-based provisions, including a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, integrated education, Irish language legislation, shared housing schemes, and the Civic Forum. The latter served as a consultative body established under the Good Friday Agreement to examine socioeconomic issues and provide a bridge between civic society and politicians. The DUP opposed the Forum, lamenting that there weren’t enough anti-Agreement voices present. The structure became a casualty of the 2002 Stormont collapse and was never revived.

In 2021, an attempt to restart the process of delivering on the Good Friday commitment of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights was once again blocked by the DUP when the party vetoed the establishment of an expert panel. In 2010, the party stated there should be no Bill of Rights, dismissing it as a “grievance charter”.

If allowed the opportunity to see implementation, the Bill of Rights legislation would protect the fundamental rights and freedoms to which each person is entitled, including the right to life, the right to freedom of religion, the right to freedom of expression, the right to education, and the right to good healthcare. It forms a core component of the Good Friday Agreement and is advocated by an overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland, with a 2021 survey showing 86 per cent of respondents in support of an enforceable Bill of Rights.

The Good Friday Agreement is founded on the principles of mutual respect and parity of esteem, and it is perhaps this proposed equality for both communities that has caused the DUP to struggle most.

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Despite commitments to bring forward an Irish Language Act on par with other legislation in Wales and Scotland, the party vehemently opposed any effort to give even marginal status to the Irish language. MP Gregory Campbell was suspended from Stormont for a day in 2014 for openly mocking the language on the Assembly floor, stating that he would treat a proposed Irish Language Act “as no more than toilet paper.” The party’s repeated opposition eventually forced the hand of the Westminster government, who were ultimately required to intervene by establishing the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022.

Unsurprisingly, the DUP opposes any and all divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK regarding Brexit, but in a spectacular display of cognitive dissonance, has fought tirelessly for years to maintain a divergent from Britain’s many modern and progressive rights implementations, namely same-sex marriage legislation, abortion rights, blasphemy laws, and language rights.

The party often flagrantly misuses key mechanisms intended to protect rights under the Good Friday Agreement, to instead hold citizens’ rights at ransom, having become adept at hindering societal progress through their manipulation, distortion, and misapplication of the very mechanisms designed to advance rights and equality.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which should be a celebration of 25 years of sustained peace. Instead, the DUP has declared that there will be no celebrations and that the anniversary will be the “burial” of the Agreement. 

It’s of little surprise that there has been a slippage of support for the Agreement within unionist communities when the largest unionist party routinely uses derogatory and inflammatory language and pairs the Agreement with their fictional narrative that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK has been undermined.

Many communities in Northern Ireland remain steeped in socioeconomic deprivation, having not felt the impact of the Good Friday Agreement or its promise of a peace dividend, due in no small part to the DUP’s successful efforts to block the full implementation of the Agreement.

As a cost-of-living crisis pushes more and more families below the poverty line, the DUP continues to prevent not only the establishment of any form of government in Northern Ireland but also the North-South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

As the late unionist party leader David Ervine once said, “These people are not to be trusted; their interests do not lie in Northern Ireland, but in self-interest.” 

The current DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, left the Ulster Unionist Party in 1998 in opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP are less the “defenders” and more the four horsemen of the agreement; their sole objective from the start has been to destroy it. The LucidTalk polling may give the party hope that its actions are beginning to erode support, but despite the slippage in unionist advocacy, 64% in Northern Ireland would still say “yes”. 

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