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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Alamy Stock Photo 1998 file image of a DUP protest against the Good Friday Agreement.
# gfa 25
'The DUP won't be celebrating': Why do a majority of unionists oppose the Good Friday Agreement?
The 25th anniversary won’t be a cause of celebration for everyone.

WHILE THE 25TH anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a cause for celebration for many, there are some in the North who won’t be celebrating this milestone.

A recent poll from the Belfast Telegraph revealed that a majority of unionists would vote against the deal if a referendum on it were to be held again.

Only 34% of unionists said they would vote for the Agreement today, while 95% of nationalists said they would vote in favour of it.

The ‘yes’ vote would still win comfortably, with 64% of the total electorate backing it, but that’s down seven points on the actual 1998 vote, when 71% voted in favour of it.

Support for the Agreement has also sharply dropped within the Ulster Unionist Party, whose party leader at the time David Trimble campaigned in favour of the ‘yes’ vote.

Around 80% of the party’s voters backed the deal then, but only 58% would now.

Jon Tonge, British and Irish politics professor at the University of Liverpool, notes that unionist support for the deal has always been “fragile”.

“You’ve got to remember, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, there was only a bare majority of unionists who supported it. 57% of Protestants backed the deal, 43% voted no.”

Prisoner releases

Tonge said some unionists were “very hostile to it” because of prisoner releases.

As part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), 428 prisoners serving sentences in connection to the activities of paramilitary groups were released.

Tonge said two thirds of these prisoners belonged to the IRA or INLA.

While the UUP leadership supported the deal, the DUP opposed it.

“The DUP’s opposition wasn’t just political,” said Tonge, “it was a very religious party at the time and the DUP’s opposition was moral as well.

“They argued that no Protestant in good conscience could support this deal because it let murderers and terrorists, in the DUP’s view, out of jail.

“So the DUP will not celebrate the Good Friday Agreement, because they viewed it as morally expedient and politically expedient, as it let prisoners out.”

A whole slate of events are planned to mark the 25th anniversary of the GFA, including visits by then-US president and First lady Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as a visit by current US president Joe Biden.

“It’s quite right that they’re coming to mark the peace aspects of the deal because there’s a lot of people alive today, that wouldn’t be alive if violence had continued at pre-Good Friday Agreement levels,” said Tonge.

“But the DUP doesn’t really care if it’s unpopular globally, because while the rest of the world celebrates the 25th anniversary, the DUP will not be celebrating, they’ll see it as a deal that they don’t outright reject these days, but they would argue it sends out the wrong messages in some ways.

“The DUP would argue that it showed that violence does pay and can pay political dividends, and so it’s not an agreement that should be celebrated and certainly not celebrated unconditionally.

“’Would Joe Biden or Bill Clinton have ever let out people who tried to blow up American cities?’ That would be the sort of argument the DUP would offer against the Good Friday Agreement, and against it being celebrated.”

Tonge added that unionists “didn’t want changes to the police service, which while not specified in the Good Friday Agreement, they knew it was coming down the track”.

As part of the reforms implemented following the GFA, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001.

Tonge said other reasons for opposition was that unionists “didn’t want Sinn Féin in government and they felt that decommissioning was fudged”.

It wasn’t until September of 2005 that the Provisional IRA announced it had completely decommissioned its weapons and “put them beyond use”.  

Voting cues

Support within nationalism for the GFA was strong both in 1998 and in the present day.

“Both of the key parties in nationalism, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, were very much behind the agreement and that was partly following their base but it was also leading their base, certainly in terms of Sinn Féin,” said Tonge.

“If Sinn Féin has opposed it, more nationalists would have voted against the Good Friday Agreement.”

However, within unionism, there was a split.

“You had the DUP against the deal, and the DUP carried quite a lot of votes, even though it wasn’t the largest of the unionist parties at the time,” explained Tonge.

“The Ulster Unionist Party was also pretty divided over the Good Friday Agreement, so it couldn’t give a clear lead to unionist voters.

“Remember that Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster (current and former leaders of the DUP) were big hitters within the UUP at the time and were against the deal.

“Voters take their cues from political parties, so that was important.”

Tonge said there is still “unionist scepticism” to the Agreement because “they don’t feel that there’s been a great peace dividend from it”.

“They feel that Northern Ireland has changed, and they’ve lost their own police services, as they saw it with the formation of the PSNI, and they feel that there is a track towards a United Ireland because of the Good Friday Agreement,” said Tonge.

“If you look at survey opinion now, it’s closer in terms of support for a United Ireland than it was in 1998, and unionism is in decline.

“The combined vote for unionist parties in 1998, it was more than 50% of the vote, now it’s down to 40%.”

Tonge said that unionists are also wrestling with the idea that “there’s likely to be a border poll at some point, and possibly a United Ireland at some stage, so they feel on the defensive”.

“For unionists, it’s hard to pinpoint what gains they got, other than peace, so it’s been a harder sell.

“Whereas for nationalists, given that they didn’t really have any stake in the State from the 1920s until the 1970s, and then only briefly at Sunningdale, for nationalists the Good Friday Agreement represented a series of gains.”

‘What has Stormont achieved?’

The Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing executive and every MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly has to designate as either nationalist, unionist or other.

However, the Stormont Assembly has been dissolved since February 2022 due to DUP opposition of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The protocol was devised to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland following Brexit.

Stormont was also dissolved for three years between 2017 and 2020, a world record for a regional assembly; “It’s not the greatest thing to trumpet,” said Tonge.

“You can say the GFA has been successful over the past 25 years, but Stormont’s been suspended almost 40% of the time during the last quarter of a century,” notes Tonge.

“So no one would say it’s been a great success politically; you might give it 10 out of 10 as a peace deal, but you’d only give it five out of 10 in terms of creating functioning political institutions.

“What has Stormont achieved? Apart from the devolution of policing and justice, which was massive given that 300 police officers lost their lives during the conflict, but what else has Stormont achieved.

“If you ask the general public to name a single achievement of Stormont, they’re struggling.”

Tonge also said the British government has a task on their hand in trying to form an executive.

“The British government’s approach has always been, ‘just give them more time to sort things out’. But the issue for the DUP now is that when they go back to Stormont, it will be in reduced circumstances.

“They didn’t mind Stormont so much when they could provide the First Minister, but they would now provide the Deputy First Minister.

“A lot of the powers are exactly the same as the First Minister, but if you ask someone which they think is the more important, 99% of people will say a First Minister in symbolic terms.”

While Tonge suggests replacing Deputy and First Minister with “co-First Ministers”, he notes that Sinn Féin would be reluctant to do so “now that they have got the position”.

One of the main sticking points for Tonge is the system of designations.

“You’ve got 1998 model of everyone’s going to designate as a unionist, nationalist or another.

“In some ways, that certainly reinforces sectarianism, because as soon as someone gets elected to the assembly, they’re not designated as a human being, they’re designated as one of their ethno-religious blocks.”

Tonge suggested that a “sensible reform” could include having “weighted majority voting”.

“So that would involve an assembly measure having, for example, around 70% support but it’s not on the basis that you have to have the support of unionists and nationalists,” explains Tonge.

Another reform Tonge said should be considered is allowing the next largest party to govern if a leading party doesn’t want to take part in Stormont.

“If party doesn’t want to take part in government, should the baton pass to the next largest party within that block or just the next largest party?

“At the moment, it’s just so easy to collapse the government. If you’re the largest party in either designation, all you need to do is pull the plug and it’s over with in seven days and the whole house comes crashing down.

“That’s probably not the most stable foundation on which to create an executive.

“So the DUP doesn’t want to take part, should their post simply go to Alliance as the third largest party, or the UUP as the next largest unionist party.”

While Tonge acknowledges the “dangers” of excluding the largest unionist party and potentially “creating a dangerous political vacuum”, he warns that “so long as the main parties have a veto over forming a government, quite often it will be difficult to form a government”.

Tonge notes that Alliance, which designates as “other” and is the third largest party, is “chomping at the bit to reform”.

“Sinn Féin as the largest party nominates the First Minister, so that would be Michelle O’Neill.

“But Alliance, even had they came in second place at the election, couldn’t have nominated a Deputy First Minister because it has to be from the unionist designation.

“Only unionists can nominate that, so Alliance want to change the rules, Sinn Féin and the DUP occasionally talk about changing the rules, but they’re not that keen on it because they don’t want take away their vetoes, they’ve got a vested interest in keeping them.

“Would the DUP have walked out if they felt that the executive would have carried on without them? Probably not, they probably would have stayed in the executive.”

‘Walk in their shoes’

While the Northern Ireland Assembly has been subject to lengthy periods of dissolution, Tonge notes that “Northern Ireland is no different from other power sharing systems”.

“Look at Iraq, Lebanon, Bosnia, Belgium, they have all got problems forming a government, where you’ve got different ethnic groups.

“So Northern Ireland is not exceptional, it’s just on scale it’s pretty bad.”

Tonge said that the “political will” to make the institutions work has too often been lacking.

“For power sharing to work, it’s not just about the institutional rules, it’s also our political will. For it to work, the parties have got to try and walk in the other side’s shoes to some extent.

“Nationalists have got to think about what unionists need here, and unionists have got to think, well what do nationalists need here.

“I don’t think either side has really done that over the last 25 years, it’s been about what their community can get rather than what’s good for the North or Northern Ireland or the six counties or whatever term you want to use.”


Tonge also said the public “takes their lead from the top”.

“There hasn’t been much thawing, you look at societal reintegration, and there’s segregated schooling, segregated housing, and people take their lead from the top.

“And at the top, if there’s still plenty of hostility between unionists and nationalists within Stormont, to the point where sometimes the institutions don’t function at all, why shouldn’t the grassroots take their lead from that.”

While Tonge said the DUP will return to Stormont at some point because “they can’t go anywhere”, he warns that some within the party have lost interest in power sharing.

“There’s a section of the DUP that is not massively committed these days to Stormont because they feel they’ve been bypassed by Westminster.

“Same-sex marriage, abortion, the Irish language Act, all that legislation has been introduced by Westminster, which in some ways drives a coach and horses through a devolution agreement, but that was to get around the DUP blocking legislation in that respect.”

Tonge also said the DUP isn’t committed to power sharing because it is no longer the largest party in Stormont.

“The DUP has been by far the biggest veto player within the institutions. It’s used petitions of concern 86 times between 2011 and 2016.

“The total number of petitions of concern lodged was 115, so you see who the big veto player is there.”

The Petition of Concern was one of the provisions of the GFA.

It is a mechanism whereby 30 MLAs can petition the Assembly and require that a matter be passed on a cross-community basis, rather than a simple majority basis.

In a cross-community vote, the majority of unionists’ and the majority of nationalists’ votes are each required to pass a motion put to the assembly.

However, a change in 2022 now means that petitions can only be triggered by members of two or more parties.   

“The DUP has always been keen on vetoes and that’s part of the reason as well why the DUP has become even less enchanted with the GFA,” said Tonge.

“When the DUP had a lot of MLAs at Stormont, that’s probably when the DUP least opposed the Agreement, because you block things.”

Between 2007 and 2016, the DUP had over 30 MLAs and the power to veto anything on its own at Stormont.

But after the most recent election, the DUP only has 25 MLAs and would require the support of others to lodge a petition.

“The years when the DUP was keenest on the Good Friday Agreement and Stormont was 2007 to 2016,” said Tonge, “because the DUP was the largest party, they could block anything they didn’t like, and they had a reasonably pragmatic working relationship with Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin.

“But since then, you’ve had the DUP’s veto power diminished, and you’ve also had Westminster legislating to get around attempted DUP vetoes anyway.

“I don’t think the DUP is really selling power sharing as a great thing,” added Tonge, “and there’s quite a big section of the unionist electorate that supported the DUP pulling out of Stormont over the protocol.

“So winning those people back round to approving power sharing and the political institutions associated with the Good Friday Agreement is difficult.

“Unionists think that nationalists are winning, and that drip by drip, increment by increment, we’re heading towards the United Ireland. They don’t see Stormont as necessarily resistant to that.”

However, Tonge notes that the UUP “is more committed to power sharing and they don’t approve of the DUP’s policy of pulling out of Stormont because of the protocol”.

Tonge believes that the DUP “will come back at some point” to Stormont, noting that “they can’t block protocol mark II, the Windsor Framework, by staying out of Stormont” and can “at least apply some breaks to it by going back in”.

But while Tonge believes the DUP “will find some pretext to go back in”, he warns that “we’re simply on to the next crisis because too often the main parties have looked like parties in search of a row with each other, rather than seeking to join each other in political matrimony”.

“They’ll find some things to row about down the track,” said Tonge, “and because they have to designate as unionist, nationalist or other, there’s an encouragement to think down those sort of channels, rather than across channels.”

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