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Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement

 4 min read / 

It’s been a solemn month of April in Northern Ireland, as celebrations commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the deal that finally put an end to decades of sectarian violence in Ulster. The historic treaty was commemorated in an event that took place in Belfast on April 10, in the presence of, among others, former United States President Bill Clinton and former Senator George Mitchell, who both played an influential role in the negotiations that sought to finally put an end to decades of religious tensions and political violence.

A Spoiled Party?

The anniversary indeed called for celebration. However, the ongoing absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland and above all the implications of Brexit somewhat spoiled the atmosphere. The threatened hardening of the Irish border as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU customs union and single market poses a conundrum to which no pragmatic solution has yet emerged.

Nor did the current political situation in Northern Ireland contribute to improving the mood: talks over the formation of a new government have been stalled for more than a year. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein appear to have abandoned the moderation that once enabled them to work together, their relationship has been strained by arguments over a heating scheme scandal and an Irish language act. Meanwhile, the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in last year’s election has left Theresa May reliant on Unionist support in Westminster. Arlene Foster, the DUP’s fiery leader, has leveraged this bargaining power to oppose any Brexit deal that could compromise Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, such as the “backstop” position of Northern Ireland remaining aligned with EU law while the rest of the UK diverges. 

The Irish Riddle

Brussels, London and Dublin are all anxious to avoid the return of border checks, aware of their potential to disrupt the delicate equilibrium that the GFA has brought about. However, while the EU insists the only possible solution is for Northern Ireland to remain within the customs union, Theresa May has reassured both the DUP and hardcore Brexit supporters in her own party that this will not happen, citing “technological solutions” that will make border controls unnecessary. Given the widespread scepticism regarding such solutions, there can be only one of two outcomes: either Theresa May extends regulatory alignment to the whole of the UK, probably at the cost of sacrificing her
political career, since the pro-Brexit faction in the Tory party will likely not accept such a massive dilution of their aims, or the Irish border becomes an external border of the EU, akin to the one between Slovakia and Ukraine, with severe consequences for Northern Irish society and cross-border relations.

Is Peace at Stake?

After twenty years of peace, the future of Northern Ireland is thus hanging by a thread. As Professor Colin Jarvis of Belfast’s Queen’s University puts it,

In negotiations, Northern Ireland could be considered as no more than collateral damage. If that’s the case, the consequences will be unpredictable.

It is worth dwelling on what is at stake here: Northern Ireland today is a very different place from what it was 20 years ago. Old enemies have shown they can work together, while dissidents on both sides have been marginalised. Indeed, with respect to other previously intractable issues that were tackled head-on in the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the GFA has been a great success. In South Africa, tensions still simmer, while the Israel-Palestine Oslo accords appear to have achieved barely anything. Perhaps peace in Northern Ireland is now robust enough to survive the disruption that Brexit will bring, but politicians should be extremely wary of jeopardising the results of an agreement that can still set an example to the world. 

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