Context and Content: Sunningdale and Belfast Compared

from Aspects of the Belfast Agreement – edited by Rick Wilford

Oxford University Press 2001

The Content of Sunningdale and Belfast Compared

Before analysing the breakdown of the Sunningdale Agreement and the relative, if faltering, success of the Belfast Agreement, it is necessary to give a brief overview of the content of each of the agreements. As Table 2.1 reveals, there are very few differences in relation to core issues addressed by the agreements reached in 1973 and 1998.

Table 2.1 The content of the Sunningdale and Belfast Agreements compared

Sunningdale Agreement Belfast Agreement
Signatories UK, RoI, UUP, SDLP, APNI UK, RoI, UUP, UDP, PUP, NIWC, L, APNI, SF, SDLP
Consent principle X X
Self-determination O X
Reform of the policing system X X
Prisoners X X
Bill of Rights X X
Abandonment of violence X X
Security co-operation X X
Cross-border co-operation X X
Recognition of both identities O X
Intergovernmental co-operation X X
Institutional role for the RoI X X
Power-sharing (X) X
Inter-island co-operation O X
Devolution of powers X X

Notes: X-issue addressed; (X) -issue implicitly addressed; O-issue not addressed

UK-United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, RoI-Republic of Ireland,

UUP-Ulster Unionist Party, UDP-Ulster Democratic Party; PUP-Progressive Unionist Party,

NIWC-Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, L-Labour, APNI-Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, SF-Sinn Fein, SDLP-Social Democratic and Labour Party

Despite their similarities there are also a number of significant differences, primarily related to contextual factors and procedural regulations. The latter relate to three main issues: d’Hondt -proportionality in the Executive, reflecting the relative strengths of the parties in the Assembly; complex voting procedures in the Assembly ensuring virtual veto rights for each of the two -communities; and the fact that the implementation of decisions taken by the North-South Ministerial Council has been made dependent upon their approval by both the Irish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This reflects the commitment, in particular by the British and Irish Governments, to assure the unionist community that no decision can be made without their consent. The Belfast Agreement is also distinct from the constitutional arrangements put in place in 1973 in that it does not require a formal grand coalition, although it “created strong incentives for executive power-sharing”. 3 Moreover, the 1998 Agreement was the outcome of a more inclusive process that involved representatives of paramilitary organisations alongside the mainstream constitutional parties.

3. O’Leary, B. “The Nature of the British-Irish Agreement”, New Left Review 233 (1999): 66-96, at 73.