Sunday, April 16, 2023

The exceptional Good Friday Agreement

The 25 year-old Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was exceptional in the double sense that it was a very good agreement, and that it was an exception among other “peace” agreements around the same period of time. The Dayton agreement about the former Yugoslavia or the Oslo agreement about Israel/Palestine were based on the “solution” of creating “nation-states” along ethnic lines. The equivalent in Norhtern Ireland would have been to create a new state for the Catholics (to be merged with the Republic of ireland) and another for the Protestants (to be kept in the United Kingdom). That was not the choice, to try to preserve one single community in a small region where Catholics, Protestants and those that prefer not to be tagged share the land. The Good Friday Agreement has been much more successful in promoting at the same time peace and prosperity than the other two agreements.

In my view, its relative success was based on two key characteristics of the agreement:

-No borders. That is, after the agreement, there would be no checks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Common institutions would be created, along the lines of the functional overlapping jurisdictions conceived by the Swiss economist Bruno Frey. For example, a common wholesale electricity market would allocate this scarce resource South and North of the (former) border. The fact that in 1998 both the Republic of Ireland and the UK were part of the European Union no doubt facilitated things. Imagination beyond the straightjacket of the "nation-state" did the rest.

-Vote over an agreement. The democratic procedure to decide on the Constitutional future of Northern Ireland was the opposite to that established with Brexit. In Northern Ireland, first all the interested parties with democratic support reached a detailed agreement, and this agreement was subject to a plebiscite in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, where the Yes vote won overwhelmingly. There were no doubts about what had been chosen, and there were no divisions. The referendum was a festival of unity, not of polarization and lies.

My modest perspective is one not of an expert but one of a distant but interested observer. I am interested because Norther Ireland, Yugoslavia and Israel/Palestine are not the only lands with identity conflicts (violent or peaceful). If we realize that the Northern Irish way is the one that should prevail, we will be taking the route of a diverse democracy and not the route of ethnocracy, which is what has been prevailing in the Balcans and in Israel/Palestine. If democracy is not able to cope with diversity and equal rights for all individuals it transforms itself into an ethnocracy, a set of institutions that only looks after some ethnic, religious or linguistic group.The Good Friday Agreement is not perfect. Probably, a perfect agreement was and is impossible. There are two aspects of it that I particularly dislike. One is that shared government is based on tagging parties (and citizens) as Protestant and Catholic, instead of giving incentives for inter-comuniatrian parties or civil society organizations. It would have been better to promote qualified majorities without the need for tagging. In any case, the influence of inter-community organizations such as the Women’s Coalition and the Alliance Party has been a very positive development in the last 25 years.

The other aspect I don’t like is that, to facilitate the signature of Sinn Fein, the political branch of the IRA, the Good Friday Agreement accepts the possibility of a a future referendum over a united Ireland, which would be the opposite of the referendums that made the Good Friday Agreement a reality. Brexit has interfered and that Irish referendum is now more likely than in the past, although the failure of Brexit and the recent pragmatic agreement on Northern Ireland belonging to the Single Market may make this development unnecessary. As The Economist recently said, "the Brexit vote critically destabilized a deal which had deliberately and helpfully blurred the border on the island."

25 years ago, the less populists politicians prevailed, but unfortunately they have been outvoted by the more radical parties in Northern Ireland, in spite of the progress of the Alliance Party. With Trump and Johnson, the Agreement would have been impossible. The Good Friday Agreement is an example of how to defeat the worst of national-populism and identity politics, through abolishing frontiers and voting after and not before, an agreement.

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