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Northern Ireland’s Political Future

A project examining the future of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

This project looks at the state of Northern Ireland politics as the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement approaches its quarter-century. It asks whether and how the power-sharing arrangements that the Agreement established can survive – and who must step up to ensure that it does so.

The project’s first report – which takes the form of a discussion paper – was published immediately following the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2022. It asks whether the 1998 Agreement is still the template for stable government in Northern Ireland. It argues that there is no other plausible framework for constructive politics, but that the Agreement needs renewal.

Through detailed analysis, it argues that attention will be needed in the coming months not just to re-establishing the Executive, but also to ensuring that power-sharing government delivers – its performance so far has been patchy. The underpinnings of the Agreement also need to be rejuvenated, for example by efforts to reduce sectarian division and ensure that politics is free of paramilitary influence.

The report also examines the responsibilities of different actors. It particularly highlights the role of the government in London. British and Irish governments for several decades worked closely together to forge political compromise in Northern Ireland. The present situation certainly requires pressures of that sort to be in play. But London in the last two years has been at odds with Dublin as well as Brussels over the Protocol, raising questions over their ability to work together now. Civic society has also at times played an essential role in Northern Ireland in ensuring that politics succeeds, and it may need to do so again in the current context.

The report aims to be accessible to all audiences, including those who know a great deal about Northern Ireland, and – with the crucial London role in mind – those who do not.

Read the report

A second report is planned. This will address the ‘destinies’: longer-term issues, notably around the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, between Union with Great Britain and Irish unity. An early version of the argument was presented in a blogpost in September 2021.

The project is led by Alan Whysall, who is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit. He was previously a senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, where he worked for many years on the Northern Ireland peace process.