What’s the story?

April 10 marked the 24th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, widely credited with bringing an end to the Troubles and codifying the conditions for power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Signed in 1998 and soon thereafter backed by a large majority of voters from both sides of the border, the agreement also saw direct British rule of Northern Ireland come to an end, with power devolved to the Northern Irish Assembly, elections for which will be held next month.

Commenting on the agreement’s anniversary, the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin (below) said that the ongoing war in Ukraine was “a stark reminder that we cannot take democracy and peace for granted.”

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He added: "It is incumbent on us all to protect and nurture the Good Friday Agreement which marked a seismic milestone in the lifetime of this island. It signalled a new beginning underpinned by peace and mutual respect - grounded in the principles of consent, democratic institutions, reconciliation and cooperation."

Looking ahead to May’s Assembly elections, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: "Change was possible 24 years ago. It's possible again, but you have to vote for it."

Sinn Féin vice president and former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill said that the anniversary “allows us an opportunity to reflect upon how far we have come,” but also to “assess the present realities that still face our society in 2022, like Brexit and protecting Ireland's future beyond it”.

Is the GFA under threat?

O’Neill is far from the first to express such concerns. Last year, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney warned that border arrangement disputes between the UK Government and the European Union post-Brexit – which earlier this year saw Northern Ireland’s first minister Paul Givan resign as part of wider Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol - could lead to “the collapse of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”

These concerns appear to be shared by the United States. Speaking on St Patrick’s Day last month alongside a virtual appearance by Micheál Martin, US President Joe Biden warned: “Our nations both are deeply committed to protecting the hard-won gains of peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement has been the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years.

“It cannot change.”

How could the GFA affect Ireland’s future?

Despite this uncertainty, provisions within the Good Friday Agreement may yet determine Ireland’s constitutional fate.

Under the agreement, referenda on a united Ireland would need to be held on both sides of the border. While only the UK has the power to call a border poll in the north, it is theoretically obligated to do so if evidence indicates a majority favour reunification.  

Speculation over whether this could occur in the foreseeable future has only grown in recent years. In late 2021, an Irish Times/Ipsos poll found that 62% of respondents south of the border favoured Irish unity, with the most popular timeline for a referendum on the issue being “within the next 10 years.”

READ MORE: Brexit: Northern Ireland Protocol creating a ‘spiral of violence’

A separate poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft in Northern Ireland did find most respondents in favour of remaining in the UK, but also revealed that Brexit had made as many as one in five question that belief, as well as mounting support for reunification amongst the young. The poll also showed a majority in favour of a border poll at some point in the future, and that two thirds of respondents believed a poll held within the coming decade would see a vote in favour of reunification.

Current polling suggests Sinn Féin will oust the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland in May’s Assembly elections, whilst simultaneously being on course to lead the government of the Republic.

In light of this unprecedented scenario, some within the DUP have already said they would rather see government in Northern Ireland suspended once again that serve under a Sinn Féin first minister.

Whether or not that comes to pass, if support for reunification continues to grow, it may become increasingly difficult for the UK Government to ignore its obligations under the agreement to which it claims to be committed.