Those who signed the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of conflict in Northern Ireland did so not because it was perfect. or the fulfilment of all their hopes and dreams. Rather it was a combination of fatigue from the destructive violence of what was euphemistically known as “The Troubles” by most of those leading the different factions; the realization that neither side could decisively win but only inflict never-ending misery; and proactive and constructive external mediation.
The negotiators needed to forgo that past, though without forgetting it, tread delicately over a number of issues that could not be resolved and brought to a closure, and most importantly build trust where it was in very short supply. All of this has now been put under considerable strain by the Brexit-induced Northern Ireland Protocol.
Like all peace agreements, the Good Friday Agreement has its fragilities and pressure points, which demand that both sides recognize the other’s sensitivities. No better example of this is the question of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The 1998 agreement didn’t solve the fundamental differences between Irish nationalism and unionism that have their origins in the creation of Northern Ireland in 1920,when the British partitioned the island. Irish nationalists still aspire to see the island reunited in one republic and an end to British sovereignty over any part of it, while unionists insist that Northern Ireland remain an integral part of the UK. In other words, the agreement over the border between north and south was devised so that it could mean different things to different people.
Symbolically it has remained the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and thus the only UK land border with the EU, but at the same time it is an invisible border that creates a one-state day-to-day reality within the context of two separate sovereign entities. This act of willing make-believe by both sides not only enabled an end to the conflict and the signing of an historic agreement, but established a peaceful border and a daily coexistence that set aside the past in favor of a better present and future.
Normality was anchored in establishing a power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland, regardless of how shaky that could sometimes be, and while not abandoning the notion of a border between the two sides, the British military presence in terms of watchtowers, checkpoints and road barriers disappeared, making the border invisible and allowing people and goods to move freely between the two countries.
Trust with London is now broken, but it might be an opportunity for further trust to be built between Dublin and Belfast.
Enter Brexit, and more than 20 years of peace and a peaceful border has become a pawn in the EU–UK debacle. Admittedly, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed the possibility that either the UK or the Republic would at any point leave the EU was in nobody’s calculus. On the contrary, the peace agreement was designed within the framework of Ireland and the UK’s membership of this supranational organization. The preamble to the Agreement provided that it would “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbors and as partners in the European Union.”
Back in April 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, no risk assessment could have envisaged the emergent populism that was to bring about Brexit, and with it the hollow “Take back control” slogan of those who led the Brexit movement. The Irish question with all its gravity and the need to nurture the nascent post-conflict society never factored in their thinking, neither did they care. For Westminster, as for most of the UK population, Ireland hasn’t been an issue of concern for a long time. A recent opinion poll by YouGov clearly indicates that more than half of all Britons don’t care whether Northern Ireland leaves the UK or remains part of it. For the main political parties the province is inconsequential in electoral terms as they don’t stand to gain any seats there, and as long as there is no return to violence it is not a major issue. Moreover, Northern Ireland politics itself is shifting away from unionism toward those who support one Ireland.
If the Good Friday Agreement managed to let all sides believe that there was enough in it to justify their support, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the Brexit agreement and came into force on Jan. 1 this year, has effectively jump-started the process of separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). Northern Ireland under this protocol continues to follow many of the EU’s rules, including lorries being permitted to cross the border without being inspected, while to meet EU regulations there are some checks on goods moving from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland. For all intents and purposes the border has moved from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea.
This has exposed the Johnson government’s pretense of never allowing a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and abolishing the one between the two sides of the island even if it’s no more than invisible one. That is exactly what he agreed with Brussels, and the clock is now ticking toward either a peaceful united Ireland, or a resumption of political tensions and even the return to a more conflict-ridden Northern Ireland.
It would be difficult to blame unionists for feeling betrayed by Boris Johnson, but knowing his character, they can hardly claim to be surprised. Nevertheless, this — especially for the younger generation — may be an additional incentive for them to rethink the supposed advantages of union with the UK, especially as that means staying out of the EU. In the Brexit referendum, the Remain cause received a resounding endorsement from Northern Ireland’s voters, and whether by design or negligent default it also presents an opportunity.
On the occasion of his 100th birthday, former US secretary of state George Shultz remarked shortly before his passing this month: “I’ve learned much over that time, but looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was … good things happened.” Trust with London is now broken, but it might be an opportunity for further trust to be built between Dublin and Belfast.
- Yossi Mekelberg