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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019

Arlene Foster says the Good Friday Agreement can be changed. Is she right?

“I have respect for Arlene, but she is wrong on this,” Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said.

Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster seen at the Conservative Party Conference.
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster seen at the Conservative Party Conference.
Image: Rui Vieira via PA Images

THIS MORNING, DUP leader Arlene Foster said that the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement isn’t sacrosanct and can be changed.

This has provoked quite a reaction from politicians and commentators – mostly expressing concern at what her comments could mean in relation to Brexit negotiations and the Irish border.

Foster said to the Telegraph, in an article published this morning:

It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can’t touch the Belfast Agreement. Things evolve, even in the EU context.
There has been a lot of misinterpretation, holding it up as a sacrosanct piece of legislation.

Arlene Foster Source: Bloomberg TV

Speaking on Bloomberg TV from the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham, Foster elaborated on this statement, saying she didn’t know why her statement to the Telegraph had created a buzz.

The Belfast Agreement has already been changed on a number of occasions. It’s been changed by the St Andrews Agreement, by the Stormont House Agreement.
So, for people to talk about the Belfast Agreement as if it’s infallible, that’s not the right thing to do. It was an agreement of its time 20 years ago, of course things change and we need to reflect that. That’s all I was saying when I said it wasn’t sacrosanct.

When asked if she had a choice between a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and checks across the Irish Sea, Foster said:

“Of course there’s a border there at the moment: we have a different Vat regime, we have a different currency regime… The government has been very clear that the UK government will not be putting any physical infrastructure at the border.

“We support that because we want to continue to have a good relationship with our nearest neighbours and continue to allow people to flow in the way that they’re doing at the moment.”

The Chief Whip of the DUP Jeffrey Donaldson told Morning Ireland this morning that “if we get a no-deal outcome, that alters the way we do business on the island of Ireland… We are not seeking to alter [the Good Friday] Agreement. We are just reflecting reality.”

What’s in the Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement is seen as a political foundation for peace in Northern Ireland after decades of violence and uncertainty brought by the Troubles.

It passed after two referendums held in Northern Ireland and Ireland on 22 May 1998; the DUP opposed the agreement after walking away from negotiations.

It’s signed and guaranteed by both the British and Irish governments, and provides for the devolved government at Stormont (which has not sat for over 20 months now).

The Good Friday Agreement was the first acknowledgement by Ireland that Northern Ireland was a part of the UK, and the Irish Constitution was subsequently amended to reflect that.

The agreement also enshrines the right of “every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation”. This allows citizens in Northern Ireland to apply for Irish passports.

Ian Paisley to stand down Dr Ian Paisley (right) and Martin McGuinness in Belfast, March 2008. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The agreement is composed of three main strands: Democratic Institutions in Northern Ireland; North/South Ministerial Council; the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

It outlines the functions Northern Ireland’s devolved government has, and the role of Westminster, which can still pass legislation for the North.

It also includes a pledge of office for those elected to the Assembly, and the Code of Conduct for ministers; and outlines areas for North-South cooperation (which include agriculture, transport, waterways, and tourism).

Any significant changes to Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK or in its affiliation with Ireland would have to be put to the voters first through a referendum in the North and the Republic.

“Foster is wrong to say the GFA is not sacrosanct,” Labour leader Brendan Howlin said.

It’s a treaty lodged with the UN and endorsed by 676,966 (71%) of NI voters. Far more than 349,442 (44%) who voted Leave. Changing it would mean negotiation with Ireland as well as with nationalists in NI.

Can it be changed?

This is a difficult question to answer because Arlene Foster didn’t specify what aspect of the Good Friday Agreement would be open for change.

Good Friday Agreement Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The two agreements Foster mentioned in the Bloomberg interview – St Andrews and Stormont House – are not amendments of the Good Friday Agreement, but are two separate agreements.

They form part of the North-South cooperation that is in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, but are not a part of it.

In short, the agreements formed part of establishing a Northern Ireland Executive between the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont. The St Andrews Agreement also pledged to set up an Irish language strategy which has been a source of disagreement between the two parties in reestablishing an executive.

Although Foster did not specify what part of the Good Friday Agreement was open to change, the question Foster was responding to was about Brexit.

In this context, the Good Friday Agreement is referenced as something that needs to be upheld no matter what deal is struck, in order to protect peace on the island and the rights of citizens.

That’s a reference repeatedly used by UK Prime Minister Theresa May – especially in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop and the importance of avoiding a hard border.

Brexit Theresa May and Arlene Foster during a visit to Belleek pottery factory in July 2018. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“I want to reinforce my commitment to the Joint Report in its entirety, including reaffirming the UK Government’s view that the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998 must be protected in all its parts,” May wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk in March of this year.

She repeated her commitment to the Good Friday Agreement during her Belfast speech in July, and used it to reject the EU’s suggestion for the backstop:

…Because the seamless border is a foundation stone on which the Belfast Agreement rests, allowing for the ‘just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities’.
Anything that undermines that is a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.

Media reports indicated today that Theresa May is prepared to limit the UK’s ability to strike trade deals outside the EU after Brexit in order to reach a compromise on the Irish backstop issue.

“I have respect for Arlene, but she is wrong on this,” Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said.

The Good Friday Agreement was voted for by overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland and Ireland, has helped to end violence and provided for the most prolonged period of peace and stability in Northern Ireland’s history.

“We will defend and protect it through Brexit,” he said.

Responding to the DUP leader’s comments, Varadkar said the Irish government will defend the “primacy” of the Agreement, adding that it is a “co-defender” of it.

“As far as this government is concerned, the Good Friday Agreement is not up for negotiation,” added Varadkar.

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