Burning down Bogside (Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/ Getty)

April 10, 2023   8 mins

Sitting together in the small hours of Good Friday, David Trimble and John Hume slipped into sentimentalism, harking back to holidays spent in Donegal and, in particular, the rugged, rocky peninsular of Inishowen. Inishowen is in the Republic, but is the most northerly part of the island of Ireland; hills rising from the water on the horizon as you look out from the west Antrim coast. According to someone in the room, the two of them waxed lyrical about the beauty of this fist of land on the other side of the border; bonding over the shared geography of their world. Inishowen, said Hume, was ”the most beautiful place in the world”. “Aye, a lovely wee place.”

Trimble and Hume had grown up in the Northern Ireland that existed before the anarchy. They had known peace and they wanted it back. To get there, each had decided it was time to make the leap together: Hume to jump with Trimble and Trimble to accept only the vaguest promises of IRA decommissioning. Each was placing a bet on the other but also, just as important, on their electorates to reward them for doing so. Only one side of this bet would pay out.

In his essay, “Why I Became A Conservative“, Roger Scruton wrote that the romantic core of the creed was the search for the “lost experience of home”, the dream of a childhood that cannot ever be fully recaptured, but can be “regained and remodelled, to reward us for all the toil of separation through which we are condemned by our original transgression”. At the heart of conservatism, in other words, is love: love for things that exist or existed and must be saved. Twenty-five years ago, as Trimble and Hume approached the moment of their destiny, it is telling that their thoughts returned to this land; the home that existed before the transgression.

That morning, exhausted and perhaps a little jubilant, they were confident that they were on the verge of bringing it back. “I know I’ve done the right thing,” Trimble said: “Aye, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it’s not ideal, but it’s worthwhile.”

Trimble had always tried to be realistic about the peace in Northern Ireland. “It would be a dereliction of duty if I only conjured up good and generous ghosts, and failed to specify the spectres at the feast,” he said eight months later, when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.

Back then, the spectre haunting Northern Ireland was the IRA’s failure to decommission its weapons. Today, it is the breakdown of the power-sharing institutions created 25 years ago, and the loss of support for the agreement among unionists. Trimble was clear at the time that the challenge was not just to decommission arms and ammunition, but also to win “hearts and minds”. To do so would be key if Northern Ireland were ever to realise Trimble’s greatest hope: “What we democratic politicians want in Northern Ireland is not some utopian society but a normal society,” he said. This was the goal: a normal society.

This has not happened. While everyday life has returned to some level of normality in Northern Ireland, its politics remain distinctly abnormal. And that, in part, is because of the Good Friday Agreement itself.

For Trimble, parliamentary democracy was the route to normalcy. This is what the struggle against the IRA had been about: democracy over the jackboot of violent imposition. The Good Friday Agreement was the final victory in this fight, a constitutional defeat for terroristic Republicanism; confirmation of Northern Ireland’s legitimacy and place in the union with Britain. And yet, democracy in Northern Ireland is not normal. Power, according to the Agreement, is always shared between the two competing tribes. Neither can govern without the other. You cannot easily kick the rascals out, because both sides must always work with the other.

Even in 1998, as Trimble wrestled with this tension in his Nobel speech, he was clear that Northern Ireland’s Assembly needed to become more than a mere “congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests”. Quoting the great Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, Trimble said the assembly needed to become a “deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.” Today, the assembly is not even sitting because the leading party of unionism, the DUP, believes its wishes have been ignored. And so stasis reigns, the ambassadors of hostile interests unable to find common cause.

This is the spectre at the feast that we cannot ignore. While there is little evidence that any other settlement was possible in 1998 — or any other time — the Agreement itself helps to ensure that the hostile interests remain separate. It both reflects Northern Ireland’s abnormality and entrenches it, for as long as the basic power-sharing structure remains in place, “normal” politics can’t resume. And yet, if the Agreement did not exist, politics in Northern Ireland would be even more abnormal than it is today. This is Northern Ireland’s tragedy.

Many of those around both Trimble and Tony Blair did not think this would be the case. The working assumption was that once the heat was drawn from the conflict, normal politics could slowly emerge and eventually replace the sectarian divide. Then a new settlement might naturally come into play. After Trimble lost his grip on power, he even switched his allegiance from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Conservative Party, convinced that this would eventually come about.

Jonathan Powell, who was Blair’s chief of staff at the time and played a key role in the negotiations, tells me Trimble had told him soon after the agreement that Northern Irish politics would eventually resolve itself into normal Left-Right politics. “I thought he was right, but that hasn’t happened.” People were fed up with the two extremes on offer, he says, and that this explained the subsequent rise in support for the Alliance Party. “Power sharing doesn’t work in the long run. Normal politics has to break through eventually, but it takes time.”

Blair remains optimistic that this could still happen. “One of things I learned about the peace process is, you can create an agreement, and you can create a legal framework, and you can do the reforms and pass the laws, but that’s not the same as two communities trusting each other,” he said recently. “But at least if there’s peace and, if we get back to some form of political stability, I think you’ve got the right circumstances for that reconciliation.”

Yet, if anything, the divide has hardened. The largest parties in Northern Ireland today are no longer Trimble’s moderate UUP and Hume’s SDLP, but the hardline DUP and Sinn FĂ©in. Meanwhile, the great losers are the Alliance Party, the one major party in Northern Ireland which seeks an end to the unionist-nationalist dichotomy. After decades of treading water, the party has recently seen its popularity jump and many believe we are witnessing the birth of a new normal in which three tribes must be brought together and not just two.

Should the Alliance continue to hoover up support, some of the basic tenets of the peace settlement would start to lose their legitimacy. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the votes of Alliance party MLAs at Stormont simply do not count for as much as their DUP and Sinn Fein colleagues. Power has to be shared between nationalists and unionists — not with those who refuse to define as either. This will no longer be tenable if 20-30% of Northern Ireland is voting for parties outside the divide.

This is one of the major reasons — alongside the DUP’s continuing refusal to serve — why there are now calls for the Good Friday Agreement to be reformed. But those calling for reform are essentially calling for an entirely new agreement — and usually because they want to bypass the DUP. But you can’t ask unionism to share power when it is a majority, and then to give up its veto the moment it becomes a minority. The Good Friday Agreement, as Blair said, can only be changed if both communities agree. And this can’t happen until the current crisis has ended, which can only happen if the DUP’s concerns are met — or enough voters abandon the party in protest. As Powell puts it: “You can’t impose it, or change the rules in the middle of a crisis. It can only happen when the conditions are right.”

But what if they never are? Either way, the great irony is that as Northern Ireland becomes more normal, the Good Friday Agreement becomes less workable. This is in large part because it has always meant different things to each side. For many nationalists it was a process. As Gerry Adams said in 1999: “The Agreement is not a peace settlement, nor does it purport to be one.” Rather, he claimed, it was “the beginning of a transitional period towards Irish unification”. To unionists, it was no such thing. It was a settlement, a reasonable compromise upon which a new Northern Ireland could grow.

Trimble’s Peace Prize speech is remembered today largely for his remark that unionists built a solid house in the north after Irish independence, but one that was “a cold house for Catholics”. Less well-remembered — but just as important — was his next sentence. “And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.”

Many northern nationalists do want the house to burn down — and legitimately so. Seeking Northern Ireland’s withdrawal from the UK and absorption into the Republic is just as legitimate and noble a cause as wanting the house to remain standing forever, like some Victorian terrace connected to Great Britain on the other side of the wall. Yet, the reality of Northern Ireland’s existential uncertainty means the “assembly of one nation” that Trimble so desperately wanted is an impossible dream. At heart there remain two nations, with two interests each opposed to the other. And while his imperfect and incomplete set of political compromises solved some of the most intractable problems in western Europe, it only replaced them with others.

Northern Ireland is one of the most constitutionally uncertain places on earth — by design. The Good Friday Agreement is ambiguous on how a future border poll will come about, for example, or even what Irish unity looks like. All that is said about a future referendum is that one must be called by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “if it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be a part of the United Kingdom”. But how this might be determined is not stipulated. Nor what it would mean, should it happen. The Irish government believes all that is required for a referendum to be called is a majority in the Northern Ireland assembly. The British Government has not made its position clear. Adding further uncertainty is the fact that, once a first referendum takes place, subsequent polls can then be called every seven years: a recipe for permanent instability. No nation on earth could create any meaningful unity of purpose should its very existence be put to a public vote every seven years. The stakes to avoid a first one are therefore extraordinarily high for unionism.

But even if the cause of Irish nationalism were to triumph in a poll, it is unclear what would happen then. Once the reality of Irish unity is set out in black and white, some may be less keen — and others more.

Rory Montgomery, a member of the Irish delegation in 1998, told me it was important to remember that while the agreement was a remarkable achievement, it was also the work of imperfect humans negotiated with great haste. “This was not handed down on tablets of stone by great men.” Many issues were resolved by the agreement, but many more had to be parked, chief among them how to deal with the legacies of the past and the continuing reality of sectarianism.

One of the problems today, Montgomery told me, was that the politicians in Northern Ireland had become “addicted to the constitutional question and the politics of crisis and intervention”. For a small place, it continues to be treated with great solemnity, a source of conversation in London and Washington, Dublin and Brussels. “The politics has remained focused on the constitutional issue and the rivalry of the two communities,” he said. “Even if Stormont was sitting for a relatively long period, there hasn’t been much focus on usual politics. And you have to be honest: the performance of the institutions has been mediocre at best.” It is hard to argue with this conclusion.

Back in 1998, Trimble warned that peace needed magnanimity, but also political prudence, “a willingness at times nor to be too precise or pedantic”. It is not for one generation of politicians to future-proof a set of laws and strictures. They must work within the bounds of what exists, not seek to perfect the world. Trimble quotes Amos Oz, who said inconsistency was the basis of coexistence. “The heroes of tragedy driven by consistency and by righteousness, destroy each other. He who seeks total supreme justice seeks death.” This is true, and yet nothing can be built on foundations that never settle. The house that Trimble and Hume built is still standing, but the running repairs are racking up.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.