It is an academic, personal and political honour to give the ninth John Whyte memorial lecture.footnote It is an academic honour because John Whyte was the most dispassionate analyst of our conflict—and so is a hard act to follow. Interpreting Northern Ireland still conveys his marvellous gifts of clarity and concision in exposition. It is a personal honour because, together with Ernest Gellner, he was the mentor who had the greatest influence on me as a young lecturer. Lastly, it is a political honour. John Whyte worried whether social scientific research on Northern Ireland was worthwhile. Nevertheless, he contributed extensively to public deliberation in defiance of his occasional despair on this matter. He would have been pleased at the extent to which social science, including political science, can be discerned in the making and nature of the Agreement.

The Agreement of 10 April 1998, ratified in referenda in both parts of Ireland on 22 May 1998, is a major achievement, both for its negotiators and for the peoples of Ireland and Britain. To make it, many politicians, officials, paramilitaries, and ordinary citizens had been through trials by ordeal. It emerged from a political desert whose only landmarks were failed ‘initiatives’. Yet the Agreement that emerged from that desert has no agreed name. It carries no person’s name, British or Irish or American, and the names of no roles, be they Prime Ministers,Taoisigh, Secretaries of State, Foreign Ministers, or Party Leaders. Some know it by the place it was made, as the Belfast Agreement, or, more controversially, as the Stormont Agreement. But it was not signed by all of its supporters in the final negotiating chambers, and it was made in many places: in Dublin, London and Washington; in smaller cities, towns and villages; and in airports, aeroplanes, and unofficial ‘communications’. Some just know it by its date: the 10 April 1998 Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement. The former seems too limited, while the latter, gives too much credit to Christianity—both as a source of resolution, and as a cause of conflict.

It is also known as the British-Irish Agreement, after the peoples who confirmed it in referenda in both parts of Ireland—though, strictly speaking, only the British in Ireland as well as the Irish in Ireland were asked to ratify it. I prefer to call it the British-Irish Agreement. This name reflects an important fact: the Agreement is the fulfilment of a previous Agreement, the Anglo–Irish Agreement. But we Irish and British know that much resides in names, and, to avoid giving any further offence to anyone’s sensibilities, I will refer simply to the Agreement.footnote1

What kind of institutional Agreement is it? The answer for a student of political science is that it is a consociational agreement, that is, a political arrangement that meets all four of the criteria laid down by Arend Lijphart:

A consociation is an association of communities—in this case the communities are British unionist, Irish nationalist, and others. A consociation can be created without any explicit consociational theory to guide it—indeed that has often happened.footnote3 More often, consociations are the equilibrium outcomes of bargains or pacts between the political leaders of ethnic or religious communities. This Agreement is the product of tacit and explicit consociational thought,footnote4 and of bargaining, or of what is sometimes called ‘pacting’.