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Why Northern Ireland’s Youth want Reform of the Good Friday Agreement

Emma DeSouza speaks to young people around the 25th anniversary of the power-sharing arrangement that aimed to bring peace

Stormont at sunset in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Peter Morrison/AP/Alamy

Why Northern Ireland’s Youth want Reform of the Good Friday Agreement

Emma DeSouza speaks to young people around the 25th anniversary of the power-sharing arrangement that aimed to bring peace

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An international spotlight illuminates Northern Ireland as it prepares to receive its first American presidential visit in more than a decade, with world leaders set to gather to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

However, political instability and the growing vacuum at Stormont will continue to serve as an unsightly backdrop – one which young people in Northern Ireland feel is far too distracting to simply be ignored.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions were established under the Good Friday Agreement, wherein the constitutional system was designed to be inherently rooted in mandatory coalition – forcing two opposing political factions to share power for the betterment of society.

It was revolutionary for its time, but the mechanisms that were intended to foster greater cooperation were soon distorted and manipulated into vehicles for self-serving vetoes. Should any one party step off the playing field, the ball vanishes.

The current period of stasis marks the sixth collapse of Northern Ireland’s Assembly in its 25-year history, totalling more than a decade without a functioning devolved government.

Imagine for a moment if there was no UK or Scottish Parliaments sitting for this long a period. Yet somehow Northern Ireland has been allowed to stumble aimlessly through the political wilderness, while the health service crumbles and more and more people fall below the poverty line – leading more people to ask: is it time to change how Stormont operates?

“Putting two people together to work together in that kind of institution at the beginning is a great idea”, says 23-year-old Nessa Brennan, “but the way it is set up now is making radical political views more acceptable. For that to change, I think there needs to be a whole new agreement.”

Similar sentiments are echoed by young people throughout the North, including 21-year-old Joel Keys who says: “I would much rather a system of government that allows for reps to deal with ‘bread and butter’ issues efficiently, and have the constitutional debate handled separately. Perhaps a bicameral system where one chamber deals with running the country (day to day), and one focuses entirely on the constitutional topic.

“I’d also want to see an end to mandatory coalition. It is my view that if you’re elected and decide not to fulfil your duties as an elected rep, that’s grand. It shouldn’t mean that the rest of the reps who want to go to work should be stopped from doing so.”

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Northern Ireland’s Good Friday generation – those born after 1998 – will know little of a functioning government, with Stormont active for just two of the past seven years.

The lack of a functioning executive has a real-world impact. Adoption and social care legislation were only the latest to be stalled due to the Stormont collapse, while Westminster has had to intervene to pass an emergency Northern Ireland budget and in legislating for abortion rights and Irish Language legislation.

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland was built on goodwill by the parties of the wiling, but that good will has given way to political agendas that harm communities in Northern Ireland. Change isn’t just desirable, it’s necessary.

“The biggest problem with the Good Friday Agreement”, for 21-year-old Matthew Taylor, “is that it’s been seen as ‘this will do’ instead of ‘we can improve this, we change things, we can make it fairer’ – that’s never an attitude you should have [toward] politics. You should always try and make it better.”

The Agreement has been reviewed previously, with amendments made in 2007. Many argue that these changes distorted the original intent of the Good Friday Agreement, creating further vetoes which have subsequently been abused. In 2020 alone the DUP used the amendments four times in efforts to veto abortion rights and COVID-19 rules. Under the Good Friday Agreement, cross-community vetoes were supposed to be safeguards linked to compliance with human rights and equality standards. 

According to 21-year-old Jude O’Kane, “you want to bring everyone along, but [the architects of the Agreement] didn’t bring everyone along and, if we changed it now, we could probably get the same equation again with just a lot more kicking and screaming.”

Review is a baked-in mechanism within the Agreement – it was never intended to be untouchable but rather like, all living documents, capable of evolving as society does.

Northern Ireland has changed drastically since 1998 and it may just be that some things which were necessary in 1998 aren’t necessary now. It could be argued that the Agreement has locked in identity politics, with Northern Ireland representatives having to designate as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. Those who opt for ‘other’ are excluded from cross-community voting.

As the DUP confirms that it will not be returning to Stormont – not anytime soon – the need for reform only grows. This anniversary offers an opportunity to do something before another generation becomes disillusioned. Rather than dinners and galas, the Government could honour the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement by opening multi-party talks, in tandem with a Northern Ireland citizens’ assembly on Stormont reform. Now is not the time for platitudes but for action.

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