You are here
Sounding the alarm
The twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has come at a most difficult time for Northern Ireland, with no government in place in Belfast and BREXIT casting a dark shadow over the future of both parts of Ireland. British and Irish continuing membership of the EU was taken for granted in the GFA in a manner that makes the Supreme Court's dismissal of the case that Brexit was incompatible with the UK's commitments under the GFA as an international treaty both puzzling and disturbing. The UK's and Ireland's participation in European institutions (initially the EEC and then the EU) underpinned British and Irish management of the problem of Northern Ireland from 1972, when both states signed treaties of accession to the EEC. Their co-operation in the early 1970's gave rise to the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973. Sunningdale's failure was a serious blow to joint efforts by the two states. But their co-operation was revived after the hunger strike crisis of the early 1980's and then entrenched institutionally in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985. The survival of that accord, despite Unionist defiance actions, paved the way to the peace process that was capped by the political settlement of the GFA in April 1998.
Admittedly, the GFA has encountered difficulties that have been reflected in an almost constant process of negotiations since the halcyon days of the accord's endorsement by large majorities in referendums in both parts of Ireland. Nonetheless, huge progress has been made towards making Northern Ireland a tranquil and contented society, with an enviable quality of life. A consequence of the province's transformation from the fearful years of the Troubles was widespread acceptance of partition among Catholics and diminishing support for the objective of a united Ireland, despite their continuing to vote for nationalist parties. One indication of Catholic contentment before the Brexit referendum was that Catholic turnout failed to match that on the other side of the sectarian divide, with the result that, prior to the March 2017 Assembly elections, the larger Catholic share of the electorate was not reflected in increased support for the nationalist parties. An assumption made by liberal Unionists in the early 1970's that British and Irish membership of the EEC would ameliorate the grievance of partition by making the border less of a barrier between the two jurisdictions in Ireland has been amply borne out by political developments since the ending of the conflict and the establishment of a seamless, non-militarised border between North and South. The outcome of the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU has thrown a huge spanner in the works.
The prospect of the return to a hard border is by no means the only reason why Brexit is such a threat to the peace in Northern Ireland. As significant is that it will drive a wedge between the British and Irish governments. Indeed, there are already signs of that, to the delight of hard-line Unionists who have sought to whip up antagonism towards government ministers in the South over both their stance on Brexit and their role in the negotiations on the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Compounding the problem is the DUP's influence over the May government at Westminster. In the process, the opposition of most people in Northern Ireland to Brexit and majority support among MLA's for special arrangements for Northern Ireland in the context of UK withdrawal from the EU has been lost sight of. Unfortunately, in the absence of agreement among the parties to form an Executive, there is little prospect of the convening of the Northern Ireland Assembly that would make clear where the majority of its representatives now stand on the issue of Brexit.
Brexit is not the only challenge to the peace in Northern Ireland. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, conditions were favourable for the settlement of the Northern Ireland problem. These included peace processes in other conflicts in deeply divided societies with which Northern Ireland was compared, an outward-looking American Administration seeking validation of its role in ending ethnic conflicts, devolution in the UK, and majority governments in both the UK and the Republic that were not beholden to any of the parties in Northern Ireland, to note a few of the factors that assisted the process. A less favourable climate exists today, with the rise of populism, the crisis of the neo-liberal model, austerity, and doubts over the survival of the UK. But Brexit remains currently far and away the greatest challenge. Its seriousness is such as to justify sounding the alarm rather than celebrating the GFA's anniversary, let alone attempting to assess its legacy.
Adrian Guelke is Emeritus Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University of Belfast.