The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and Brexit by Andrew McCormick


Nearly six years after the referendum, the Northern Ireland aspect of Brexit is still causing controversy, and the significance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is a recurrent theme. As part of their opposition to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, some unionists have said that the 1998 Agreement is no longer acceptable to them. At the same time, some commentators (from a range of backgrounds) are saying that the growing numbers of non-aligned voters mean that some of the fundamental assumptions behind the Agreement need to be revisited.

In this briefing note, Dr Andrew McCormick – a former senior official in the Northern Ireland Civil Service – seeks to draw attention back to some fundamentals of the Agreement that are sometimes overlooked, in particular the deep compromises that are at its heart. These fundamentals are still highly relevant today and go to the heart of the current controversy, as they highlight important issues in relation to democratic legitimacy and the interaction between the UK constitution, the 1998 Agreement as a constitutional settlement, and the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement. 

As well as highlighting the compromises on both sides at centre of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Dr McCormick draws out the ongoing implications of the Agreement in the context of divisions over the Protocol. He looks in particular at issues of consent, confidence and trust and suggests that the UK government takes a responsible and honest approach.

Dr Andrew McCormick retired last year as Director General of International Relations for the Northern Ireland Executive Office. He was the Executive’s lead on Brexit, including between 2017 and 2020 when there were no ministers. As a result, he regularly attended ministerial meetings, including JMC(EN) and EUXT (P). Until May 2021, he represented the Executive at the Specialised Committee on the Protocol.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.