A ‘magnificent achievement,’ imperilled

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Features, Uncategorised

The border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland was once the site of near-constant conflict. After Brexit, some fear it could be again.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

When Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning Irish poet, published that famous passage in 1991, he was ostensibly talking about the Trojan War. Yet for many, especially on the island of Ireland, Heaney’s prose struck a quite different chord and resonated with the fitful peace process in Northern Ireland. Among them was Bill Clinton who, on a presidential visit to Londonderry in 1995, declared that ‘we live in a time of hope and history rhyming’.

Three years later the British and Irish governments, together with representatives from all eight political parties in Northern Ireland, signed the Good Friday agreement, putting an end to over three decades of a bloody sectarian conflict on the island on Ireland. Last week marked twenty years since pen was put to paper in Belfast. It is an anniversary that has caused reflection and debate over Good Friday’s enduring importance and its future, which many feel is threatened by the United Kingdom’s impending departure from the European Union.

Professor Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, its Global Governance Programme and the newly-minted European Government and Politics Programme, is one of those who feels that Brexit imperils the Good Friday agreement. Speaking to EUI Times Laffan argued that, with less than a year until Britain drops out of the EU, Brexit ‘disturbs the settlement in a very serious way’.

Central to understanding Good Friday’s enduring importance is the realisation that it is not a peace deal in the traditional sense. The deep divisions between Unionists and Nationalists, Protestants and Catholics that stoked the Troubles did not disappear in 1998 – in all likelihood, they never will.

‘Northern Ireland was a deeply, deeply divided community,’ Laffan explains. ‘Unionists and Nationalists lived in different universes. They played different sports, went to different schools, had different doctors and lived in different places. It remains a deeply divided society today,’ she added.

Good Friday never attempted to resolve those divisions. Instead, Laffan points out, it created a system in which both communities could coexist. ‘Good Friday was effectively an agreement by the leaders of the two communities that, although the conflict was not over, it would subsequently be prosecuted by politics instead of guns.’

The ‘genius’ in the Good Friday agreement, Laffan suggests, was the stipulation that ‘you could be British, or Irish, or both. That allowed Nationalists in Northern Ireland to feel that they’re Irish, and Unionists to feel they’re British, and for some to be very comfortable with both identities. It didn’t take the conflict away, but it took it into a non-violent phase. This is an agreement that allows people to take from it what they wish and that,’ she adds, ‘is a magnificent achievement.’

Laffan is convinced that Brexit poses a grave threat to that achievement. ‘The UK and Ireland’s joint membership of the EU was the international scaffolding for the agreement,’ she explained. ‘It meant that once you took down the army towers and checkpoints on the border, the single market made the border invisible.’

Brexit threatens the Good Friday agreement ‘in a very serious way,’ Professor Brigid Laffan argues.

London is yet to come up with a solution that would avoid the erection of some sort of infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which stretches for just shy of 500 kilometres from Lough Foyle in the north to Carlingford Lough on the northeast coast of the island. In December the UK and EU reached an agreement that promised there would be no hard border – like physical infrastructure or customs checks and controls. Both sides appear determined to avoid the return of checkpoints on the border, but that determination is fundamentally at odds with the ‘red lines’ that Prime Minister Theresa May has set out for the UK’s withdrawal – which include leaving both the EU’s single market and customs union.

If there is ‘any infrastructure whatsoever’ on the border, Laffan believes it will cause serious problems. ‘What is now an invisible border becomes an EU border,’ she explained. ‘56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to Remain and, if you look closer, 86% of Nationalists voted to Remain. You would be saying to Nationalists in Northern Ireland, ‘you are on the wrong side of the border.’’

‘The border today is seamless,’ she continued. ‘People living on one side of the border shop on the other, they cross it for dinner on a Saturday night or to go to the cinema. It’s a lived space.’ Those same people, she explained, ‘have in living memory experienced the border roads being bombed by the British Army so that the IRA could not use them. They remember the watchtowers on the border. They remember being stopped by troops. They don’t like any physical infrastructure on the border – it will not have the consent of the people.’

One solution being pushed by London in particular is the use of new technology on the border – drones and cameras have been mooted – so that checks can take place without physical infrastructure in place. Yet Laffan is sceptical that such initiatives can work on such short notice. ‘Britain is leaving the EU next year, and the transition ends in 2020. A contested border is not the place to start experimenting on new stuff that hasn’t been done elsewhere.’

Laffan suspects that it is more likely that ‘special arrangements’ will be made for Northern Ireland, which could involve devolving things like health and safety standards to Belfast and tracking at parts in the Republic and the North where cargo is going. ‘I think Northern Ireland will have to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU if there is to be no border,’ she suggested.

That could prove a tough sell for both Conservatives in London and the DUP in Belfast, although they may not have much choice. Last week Michel Barnier, the Commission’s Brexit negotiator, repeated his assertion that there could be no withdrawal agreement without a solution to the Irish border. Speaking in Strasbourg on 18 April, EUCO chief Donald Tusk agreed that ‘without a solution there will be no withdrawal agreement and no transition.’

If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the consequences for the island of Ireland could be catastrophic. Speaking to the BBC earlier this month Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taioseach who signed the Good Friday agreement, suggested that the return of a physical border would lead to widespread civil disobedience. ‘There is not going to be a physical border across Ireland because if you tried to put it there you wouldn’t have to wait for terrorism to take it down, ordinary people would just physically pull it down,’ he said.

Despite the very real threat of violence returning to Ireland, some British politicians have reacted with a shrug of the shoulders. As recently as last week, Labour MP and Shadow Secretary for International Trade Barry Gardiner was recorded describing the agreement as a ‘shibboleth’ – an obscure term sometimes used to refer to something outdated or obsolete.

Laffan is not surprised. ‘Let’s not fool ourselves and think that Northern Ireland looms large in the consideration of many British politicians,’ she explained. ‘London only began to take Northern Ireland seriously when people started to die.’

We are yet to reach a point where that, a restoking of the Troubles, is at all likely. Even so, as the Good Friday agreement turns twenty, politicians would be wise to take tread carefully, take heed of Heaney’s words, and reflect upon a time when hope and history rhymed.

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