Vulcan Insight

NI’s Alliance Party Calls for Reform of the Good Friday Agreement

9 March 2023

The announcement of the Windsor Framework last week represented a major breakthrough in relations between the UK and the EU. It was also a vital stride towards re-establishing relative political stability in Northern Ireland, where the Assembly has now been suspended for almost a year. In May 2022, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused to assent to the election of a Speaker in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, thereby preventing the functioning of the Assembly. The Windsor Framework includes significant concessions from the EU designed to preserve Northern Ireland’s ties to the UK, as well as its legal sovereignty, both of which have been primary concerns for the DUP. Earlier this week, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson formed a panel to consider the detail of the Windsor Framework and, ultimately, to decide whether the DUP will support it. 

In addition to these ongoing deliberations, tensions exist elsewhere which add further complexity to the political situation in Northern Ireland. With the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement imminently approaching, there have been calls for reform of the landmark peace accord. Originally conceived as a means of facilitating power sharing between nationalists and unionists, the mood music from certain quarters, most notably the Alliance party, is that the Good Friday Agreement is no longer fit for purpose. 

The Alliance party is now the third largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly, having won 17 seats in the last election. The party is advocating changes to certain aspects of “strand one” of the Good Friday Agreement, which require support from 50% of both designated unionists and nationalist members of the legislative Assembly. Alliance says this requirement amounts to a veto that allows Sinn Féin or the DUP to hold “the Assembly and the executive to ransom”. Kate Nicholl, Alliance MLA for Belfast South, has argued that reform is required because the current system does not deliver the cross-community consent envisaged by the Agreement. Ms Nicholl contends that her party’s base, who are of neither “green nor orange” political persuasion, are inadequately represented because of the veto.

Last year, Alliance proposed changes to voting systems within both the Stormont Assembly chamber and at the Executive table to ensure votes cast by MLAs who consider themselves neither unionist nor nationalist are given the same weight as others. Addressing her party conference on Saturday (4 March), Alliance leader Naomi Long insisted that it would be preferable to bring about change to current voting structures through political negotiation. However, Ms Long emphasised that Alliance would be willing to resort to legal action to achieve its objectives. In this regard, Ms Long has questioned whether the current rules are compliant with human rights law, stating that “we have sought legal advice on this particular point a number of times. We are now in the process of considering whether or not it is something that we want to challenge”. 

One of the principal architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Bertie Ahern, has also weighed in on the question of reform. Mr Ahern has urged restraint. It is his view that to open a debate now would give unionists a further excuse to continue their boycott of devolved government, with potentially fatal consequences for power sharing.