UK not considering Belfast Agreement reform ‘at this time’ in light of powersharing report

Recent restoration of North’s devolved institutions earlier cited as main reason for keeping existing arrangements

Reform of the Belfast Agreement is not being considered “at this time”, the UK government has said in response to a Westminster report recommending an overhaul of rules governing Stormont powersharing.

The restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions earlier this month is cited as the main reason for keeping the existing arrangements – set up 26 years ago under the landmark peace deal – in place.

“The Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement is at the heart of Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements, and the government is unshakeable in its commitment to it,” Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said.

“I am of the view that any substantive change to the Agreement must come from within, should not be rushed and, most importantly, must have the support of all the communities in Northern Ireland.”


Mr Heaton-Harris’s comments appeared in the UK government’s formal response published on Thursday to a 100-page report unveiled by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster in December following its year-long inquiry into the effectiveness of the Stormont government.

The committee’s report was released at a time when the institutions had been down for almost two years and included a raft of far-reaching proposals to aid the return of the Executive and prevent further collapse.

The development comes a day after Tánaiste Michaél Martin signalled his support for reform in the wake of the next Assembly election.

Speaking to reporters at Ulster University, he outlined concerns about the repeated collapses of Stormont since it came into operation in 1998.

“I think over the lifetime of the agreement it has been down as often as it’s been up and that’s a problem,” he said,

“And I think we can’t go blindly into the next Assembly elections without endeavouring to rectify some of those issues, which I think can be done. I think there should be discussions around that.”

One of the Westminster committee’s most “urgent” recommendations related to rules governing the election of the Assembly speaker.

The committee argued for the speaker be elected by a two-thirds “supermajority” of MLAs – thereby removing the veto that had allowed the DUP to block the process multiple times and stop any Assembly business taking place as part of its protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

A rebranding of the First and Deputy First Minister titles – the positions are equal in all but name – to make them “Joint First Ministers” was also put forward.

Overall, the committee called on the UK government to order an independent review “in partnership with the Government of Ireland” and Stormont parties to examine the operation of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement with a focus on their ability to provide “effective and stable government in Northern Ireland, with broad cross-community inclusion”.

But the UK government rejected this proposal by stating that any discussion on political change should be “led by the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives”.

“Voices from the UK or Irish Governments should not be at the forefront of any calls for reform,” it said.

It added: “Given the recent restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, a review of the Agreement, or amendment of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is not being considered at this time.

“However, the report articulates challenges to the stability of governance, which the government recognises. The government is grateful to the committee for this report, particularly the care taken to listen to a diverse range of viewpoints and reflect the voices of all parts of the community.”

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Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times