Ian Cooper (DCU Brexit Institute)
On Thursday 6 April 2023, the DCU Brexit Institute hosted an online event, The 25th Anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement & the Windsor Framework. The event featured a Keynote Address from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. This was followed by a panel discussion featuring Federico Fabbrini, Full Professor of EU Law and Founding Director of the Brexit Institute; and Mary C. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University College Cork, introduced by Kenneth McDonagh, Head of the School of Law and Government, of Dublin City University, and chaired by Mark Landler of the New York Times.
In his Keynote Address, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave an overview of and personal reflections on the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). He saluted many of the key participants in the process, including George Mitchell, the former US Senator who chaired the talks, John de Chastelain, the Canadian chairman of the commission on the decommissioning of arms, and former UK prime minister Tony Blair. While historically it was not normal for the Taoiseach and the UK prime minister to be friends, they became so as they dealt with each other every day – starting when they were both in opposition and continuing after they were each elected to their respective positions in mid-1997. Blair saw his role as to reassure the unionists, since as an incoming Labour government might be assumed to be sympathetic to Irish nationalism; Ahern for his part would talk to the nationalists, including Sinn Fein.
The talks began in earnest in September of that year. A key moment came when Sinn Fein joined the talks; this prompted the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to walk out, but David Trimble stayed, representing the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). George Mitchell set a hard deadline for the end of the talks when he announced that he would be leaving on Holy Thursday (April 9), which gave the final impetus for the parties to reach an agreement. Ahern then gave an overview of the three strands of the GFA, in addition to many of the issues which needed to be resolved, including questions of rights, policing, justice, and the methodology for securing the endorsement of the people in referendums on both sides of the border on 22 May 1998.
Mary C. Murphy noted that she remembered well the events of 25 years ago, as she was living in Northern Ireland at the time. She first noted the good in the GFA, including the fact that it saved lives and created stability and paved the way for economic regeneration in the region. Some elements of the GFA, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny. It is too easy to bring down the institutions, and there is scope for revising the cross-community voting mechanisms. In addition, it has not brought about societal reconciliation in the deepest sense. Comparing the GFA to the Windsor Framework (WF), she noted several similarities: both documents are complex and cumbersome, based on compromise. They offer novel arrangements specific to Northern Ireland, and they depend on cross-community buy-in. Support for the WF in Northern Ireland is close to 70% according to polls, which is very close to the number that voted in favour of the GFA. There is opposition, however, which is centred on the branch of unionism represented by the DUP. However, just as the DUP eventually came around and participated in the GFA institutions, they may eventually come to support the WF. Murphy believed that we can take heart from this.
For his turn, Federico Fabbrini focused his remarks specifically on the Windsor Framework (WF), making three main points. First, the WF should be seen as an agreement that has been taken in the shadow of the GFA and in anticipation of its 25th anniversary. It is an act of EU-UK reconciliation. Second, it is not, as it sometimes portrayed, a new treaty, nor a wholesale rewriting of NI Protocol. Rather it is an agreement regarding the implementation of the Protocol, including a small amendment to the Protocol that has now been made by EU-UK Joint Committee. It does give some greater flexibility to the UK regarding the creation of green and red lanes and applying rules relating to VAT and state aid rules. Third, the Stormont Brake is the most important element of the WF, which gives Northern Ireland the possibility to suspend the application of new EU rules in the region. It cleverly employs an element of the GFA and requires there to be a functioning executive and assembly in Northern Ireland for it to be used. In this way it is a creative use of the post-Brexit institutions to bolster the GFA institutions.
This discussion was followed by a lively question-and-answer exchange with the audience.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.