Today is the 21st Anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), when politicians from eight political parties in Northern Ireland met with representatives from the British and Irish Governments, to finally put an end to decades of bloodshed and fear.
Each year, when the anniversary of its signing comes around, there is a collective recognition in Northern Ireland about how much the region has changed for the better and a relief that the children of The Troubles now have children of their own who haven’t experienced the same kind of fear their parents did before them.
This year, however, Brexit – as with many other things – has taken over the debate. Now, instead of reflecting on the positive aspects that the peace process has brought to Northern Ireland, people are worried about whether the Good Friday Agreement will survive at all.
This is because the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement, the deal required for Britain to leave the European Union, is currently stuck on a key issue of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The European Union and many MPs refuse to support a deal which would drive a wedge down the island of Ireland – seamless borders are, after all, a key facet of the Good Friday Agreement. To get around this, the European Union proposed a ‘backstop’ which would allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the Customs Union while the rest of the UK leaves, thereby allowing seamless trade and free movement of people across the Irish border.
This plan was, however, rejected by the Democratic Unionist Party and several other MPs, who refuse to support a deal which gives Northern Ireland different rights and responsibilities to the rest of the UK. They believe this would irrevocably damage the union between the four counties of the United Kingdom.
As a result, the Withdrawal Agreement has stalled, necessitating a delay to Britain leaving the EU and causing frustration amongst Brexiteers and Remainers alike.
Most importantly for the future of the Good Friday Agreement – and continued peace in Northern Ireland – we have seen some MPs now claiming that the need for seamless borders as part of the Withdrawal Agreement is being ‘exaggerated and ‘hyped up’, while others accuse the UK Government of ‘ripping up’ the GFA, and even some (unconfirmed) reports that the GFA itself might be ‘amended’ to remove the obstacles to securing a Brexit deal.
Whatever your view, there is a very real concern that the Good Friday Agreement is now being used as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations, with many concerned about the consequences this will have for continued peace.
It is important to note that division in Northern Ireland didn’t simply disappear because an agreement was signed. Despite the education programmes, reconciliation projects and hard-work that has occurred to bring both sides together, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society that still votes and in some ways still exists along a fragile fault line of Catholic vs Protestant, Republican vs Unionist.
The Good Friday Agreement provides the framework which currently manages these divisions and which has allowed the two communities to come together and make the positive progress we see in the country today.
While the detail of the Good Friday Agreement is not predicated on the EU, the fact that it was devised and agreed by the UK and Ireland, both of whom were, and for the time-being still are. members of the EU has been central to its success. The single market, customs union and freedom of movement has facilitated the ability for the people across the island of Ireland to work, live and trade across the Irish border.
Put simply, Northern Ireland only works on the basis of the interdependence of both sides of the divide, but Brexit is now raising the possibility that this interdependence could be risked by a hard border.
This is why discussions about potential ‘backstops’ cannot be had simply on the basis of how it will work in practical or economic terms, but also in recognition that in Northern Ireland a border is more than a barrier to trade – it is a barrier to peace.