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Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement isn’t working

Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness in February 1998. Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty

Joe Biden landed in Northern Ireland yesterday to “salute the 25th anniversary of its US-brokered peace accord”, says Shawn Pogatchnik in Politico. “It will be a hollow celebration.” The “central vision” of the Good Friday Agreement – power-sharing between British unionists and Irish nationalists – simply isn’t working any more. The province has been without an elected government for nearly a year, and has no annual budget, “only red ink, rising in a sea of dysfunction”. The region’s bean counters estimate an extra £808m is needed this year just to keep basic services running. What’s more, Westminster has demanded “immediate spending cuts” of more than £500m.

With no bona-fide government, decisions on where those cuts will land are being left to 10 unelected civil servants – people employed to “advise ministers neutrally, not take direct political decisions”. Vital programmes like holiday meal subsidies for poor children have been binned without warning. The Good Friday Agreement’s requirement that the government comprises a coalition between unionists and nationalists means the “famously stubborn” DUP can “indefinitely obstruct” Sinn Féin, now the largest party, from forming a government. Their opponents aren’t much better: Sinn Féin hardliners have also periodically shut down Stormont over the past decade. Whatever politicians in Westminster and Washington say, the landmark deal has failed to build a “stable culture of partnership” in Northern Ireland. “I have this emptiness in the pit of my stomach about all the opportunities we had,” said one veteran Stormont insider last week. “We missed every single one of them.”