Twenty years on from April 1998 the Good Friday Agreement celebrates its anniversary, but instead of looking forward to another twenty years of peace and prosperity, Northern Ireland faces uncertainty over its own governmental system, its place in Europe and its very existence itself.
Heralded as an impossible task made possible, the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement as it was also known as, managed to bring peace to one the world’s most fractured and violent communities. After nearly thirty years of conflict and over three and a half thousand dead along with over forty-seven thousand injured, the region of Northern Ireland was utterly exhausted.
Numerous political and paramilitary groups existed on both sides of the divide – Unionists against nationalists, loyalists against republicans and Protestants against Catholics. The conflict, which kicked off in 1967, would become known as “The Troubles” and by 1994 it had decimated communities in Northern Ireland both economically and socially, causing massive unemployment and unrest, while preventing any major outside investment in the region.
Prime Minister of Britain and Northern Ireland Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement in 1998Following a number of ceasefires from both sides, multi-party talks on a possible peace agreement began in earnest in June 1996 and despite false starts and stops, the agreement was finally drawn up and signed on April 10, 1998 – that year’s Good Friday. The next step was an all-Ireland referendum which took place on May 22, 1998. The Northern Ireland referendum approved the agreement and in the Republic of Ireland, a referendum supported the British-Irish Agreement and enabled an amendment of the Constitution of Ireland as part of the Agreement itself.
No plain sailing
While since then the Agreement has managed to become one of the most successful peace agreements ever, the everyday task of running Northern Ireland has not been so fruitful and today, as we celebrate its anniversary, Northern Ireland has no local government. The current leading parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are at loggerheads over how to reinstate the local government institutions. A number of issues have caused conflict on both political sides, such as Sinn Féin’s concerns about the DUP leader Arlene Foster, and her handling of an environmental grant scheme which went over budget by millions, as well as the DUP’s resistance to Sinn Féin’s demands on recognition of the Irish language.
These problems are even more confounded by the fact that the DUP had advocated for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. The only Northern Ireland political party to do so, they continue to support the concept of Britain leaving the European Union and as such, prevent any real discussion or collective representation for Northern Ireland on the future land border between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Because of the lack of governmental institutions in Belfast, the role of protecting the interests of those who voted remain in Northern Ireland has fallen to the Dublin government to defend. This has angered the DUP who feel that the constant involvement of Dublin in the EU – British negotiations has been a precursor to a number of agendas, including one for a united Ireland. DUP politicians such as Sammy Wilson have accused the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney of a “cynical, aggressive, green and partisan” approach to the Brexit negotiations and even called Taoiseach Varadkar a ‘nutcase’. In an interview on the Irish national radio station, Wilson stated that “their handling of this has damaged relationships which were built up over a long period of time”. He also said in the same interview: “as a minister in the Northern Ireland Executive I had very good relationships with the finance ministers in the republic, but I can tell you none of them would have dealt with Northern Ireland in the way that those two, Coveney and Varadkar, have dealt with Northern Ireland”.
Sammy Wilson MPFollowing the end of the phase one Brexit negotiations, when Britain announced that if a final agreement was not reached between the UK and EU, when it came to Northern Ireland, the UK agreed to maintain “full alignment” with the rules of the customs union and internal market which support North-South cooperation, the DUP leadership went into meltdown and threatened to destabilise the government. The DUP were on the verge of pulling out of a power sharing pact which enabled the Conservatives to hold a majority in Westminster over the fact that a proposal was agreed which hinted at a virtual border in the Irish Sea. They saw this as isolation and separation from London and a threat to the union of Britain and Northern Ireland. Their last minute intrusion in the talks forced the UK to roll back and re-write the agreements to ensure that no border will exist in the Irish Sea.
Since then, although the Brexit talks have seemed to be progressing, the situation in Belfast has deteriorated. With no breakthrough in an understanding on how to form a power sharing executive, Sinn Féin and the DUP have practically given up on reinstalling any government institutions and as such, day to day running of the region has reverted back to Westminster.
Brexit – the new threat to peace
And it is this outcome that along with Brexit threatens to tear up the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP were never signatories to the original process and even today seem to be unfazed by the prospect of the agreement being dissolved. It seems to many commentators that the DUP’s desire is full alignment with Westminster which would see Northern Ireland being run directly from London while the DUP hold office in some overseer mode.
The absolute nonchalance of the DUP to disregard the impact of the death of the agreement is both staggering and stupid. While there has been major issues in the twenty years regarding just how the institutions are run, these have all been political and even though it must be acknowledged that there still remains a small paramilitary threat, the whole concept of terrorist actions has been largely removed by the peace process that started with the two referendums in 1998.
The original info sheet on the 1998 referendumsIt would be a cruel outcome should Brexit lead to a return of conflict in Northern Ireland. To be fair, while the likelihood of outright war is highly unlikely, the dissolution of such a successful peace process over what is really an issue more related to anti-EU sentiment in England, would not only be utterly disappointing, it would be shameful. Northern Ireland voted 55.80 to 44.20 to remain in the EU, yet this clear majority is being ignored in favour of a greater UK majority which largely happened in England. And it is this vote in England which seems to have been completely ignorant to what the outcome of leaving the EU would do for Northern Ireland and the peace process. Brexit is primarily an English problem and if there is to be no hard border then there it must stay, because an existing and successful peace treaty must take precedence over a regional social and economic problem.
What are the alternatives?
Should the agreement become a causality of Brexit, would an alternative be the union of the island of Ireland? Certainly in the hearts of most people on the island, there is a desire for unity, but in the real world, when faced with the economic and social repercussions, I’m not so sure that a clear majority would be in favour. It currently takes about ten billion pounds a year to run Northern Ireland and to believe that Dublin would be able to pour that kind of money into the region each year is incomprehensible. You can also be assured that if it costs London ten billion, then it will probably cost Dublin twenty billion. And that’s not even taking into account the massive initial investment required to align Northern Ireland to the Republic in terms of infrastructure and public services, just to name a few. Further more, one can’t even imagine what the military and security budget would have to be. And maybe yes, while the long-term outcome could be that the region would begin to pay for itself, the impact down south would be enough to break the bank on what is a cautious recovery from the economic downturn which started over ten years ago.
It is my personal belief that Ireland will be eventually united and that it will happen when all the people of the island, regardless of culture, religions or colour, decide to do it collectively. Only then, working as one truly unified society, could we make it a success. So, despite claims to the contrary, I don’t believe that Brexit should be the catalyst for what would to me be a forced unity. Ireland must be unified when it decides – not because of yet another social blunder by Britain.
So what is the likely outcome? I’m beginning to think that compromise will have to be made on all sides. The DUP may need to allow some kind of open border process at the expense of a devolution of unity to the British mainland. Alternatively, Dublin may have to accept some kind of customs union and less free movement of goods and services. However, this will be more of a token gesture rather than a huge logistical issue. Certainly, the EU and Dublin hold the stronger hand, but they need to be careful of the fact that the game is far from over. However, I am still convinced that despite the statement that they will not be in the single market or customs union, Britain’s stance is a ruse designed to be nothing more than keeping the status quo in a different name. They seek an agreement that is everything that exists already but unique in name to London, and allowing them to save face by managing to get the individual deal they desire. There may be a restriction of people but not goods and services, and, anyway, if there is restriction of people, it will not apply with Ireland because of the Common Travel Arrangement, so the Good Friday Agreement will continue, albeit in some small modified form, such as an addition or update to include the outcome of Brexit.
A solid foundation that must be defended
Even though a solid plan was put in place back on Friday 10 April 1998, twenty years on Northern Ireland continues to be a major headache for Britain. Outside forces continue to conspire to threaten and disturb what is still a fragile peace in the region and conflict has not gone away – it has been taken off the streets and transferred into the offices of government, so to try and say otherwise could be hypocritical. But despite the remaining tensions, the Good Friday Agreement has done its job – to keep the peace and build a better future. People from the north holiday in the south and visa versa. Trade is better than ever before. Cross border initiatives are more prominent, job investment is growing, and, most importantly, cross communities are communicating. Brexit must not destroy this progress.
So my hope is that on this anniversary, the people of Ireland have still got the best opportunity in place for peace and prosperity, but we must be vigilant that certain elements in Britain are conspiring against our well-being for their own good.
Brexit may have caused division in Britain, but it shouldn’t prevent unity in Ireland, because after all, we already did the hard part in 1998.
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