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7 February 2023

John Major suggests the Good Friday Agreement should be changed

The former PM argued it could be amended to prevent one party from collapsing the executive.

By Freddie Hayward

In front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee today (7 February), John Major labelled Brexit a “colossal mistake” – but it’s not surprising that someone who voted Remain views Brexit as an error. More significantly the former PM suggested that, 25 years after it was agreed, the Good Friday Agreement should be amended.

Rishi Sunak’s Brexit dilemma is that he needs to reach an agreement with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as restoring the Northern Ireland executive, which hasn’t met in a year. The Good Friday Agreement hands a veto over the executive to the largest unionist and nationalist parties. Since February last year, the DUP – the largest unionist party – has boycotted the executive in protest over the protocol’s terms.

Major suggested that the agreement – which has underpinned peace in Northern Ireland for the past two and a half decades – may need to be changed to prevent one party from collapsing the executive. He argued that problems in Northern Ireland such as economic deprivation cannot be addressed without an executive because the civil service can’t take the necessary decisions. Major also pointed out that the core unionist and nationalist parties aren’t as dominant as they once were.

“If one reviewed it, one might find a few things one would update,” Major said. “Because I’d like to say, 25 years on, a generation that grew up in peace will not have the same emotional baggage as those who had to live through a huge and horrible period of violence… we do need to look forward and see what we can do.”

Major isn’t the only person raising concerns over the agreement. Simon Hoare, the chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, said last week that the government should hand power to the next-largest unionist party to remove the DUP’s veto on the formation of the executive. 

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This is not on the cards for the moment. Any change must be agreed by the UK and Irish governments, and the former has said it isn’t interested. But if the government is unable to get the DUP back into the executive then calls to revise the agreement could grow.

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[See also: What is the Northern Ireland protocol?]