Here’s why Brexit could imperil peace in Northern Ireland

by Bruce Clark | 10.04.2018

Billy Graham (no relation of the preacher) is a freelance writer who has settled in the seaside village of Rostrevor, just north of the Irish border, where the cultures of the two parts of island now mingle agreeably. Life wasn’t always so peaceful. He recalls the day in the 1970s when, as a reporter in Belfast, he heard a bomb in an arcade near his office. Moments later, “there was a terrible silence, with smoke drifting and a smell of explosives and burned flesh. Five people including the bombers were dead.”

These days, he says, he finds himself “looking out over the mountains and sea and giving thanks for an imperfect agreement which brought an imperfect peace”. That less-than-ideal bargain was the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which was struck 20 years ago today.

Right now it is the non-ideal features of the GFA, both in its conception and its execution, that are on many people’s minds. The agreement, bolstered by moral and material encouragement from London, Dublin and the EU, was supposed to guarantee that the governance of Northern Ireland would rest for the indefinite future on a deep compromise. Any self-administration for the region must be based on power-sharing between the mainly Protestant Unionist community and the mainly Catholic Irish nationalists, taking the cultural interests and aspirations of both sides into account.

At the moment the agreement is both alive and dead. The power-sharing it mandated collapsed nearly a year and a half ago, with rancour over Brexit (which most Catholics abhor and a majority of Protestants support) a major background factor. But some of the deal’s axioms are still affirmed by virtually every stakeholder. It is agreed that if there is to be any fresh devolution of power to the region, it must be based on power-sharing. It is accepted that both London and Dublin should have a consultative say in the region’s affairs. And above all, the principle of consent is intact: the region’s political status will not alter unless a majority of citizens vote for that, but it will change (in favour of Irish unity, for example) if the electorate ever so decides.

Like the Dayton agreement in Bosnia, the deal simultaneously entrenches and cuts across inter-communal divisions. It assumes that today’s separation into opposing political/cultural/religious camps is here to say, and it tries to make deals which mitigate that division. Some consider that a design flaw, others call it realism. In recent days, an opinion poll has driven home how mixed the results have been. Only half the respondents thought the Catholic-Protestant division had eased since the GFA, while a quarter thought it had grown worse, and a quarter saw no change.

Hard border would sharpen inter-communal tension

Apart from differences over the long-term future, nothing sharpens inter-communal tension as much as Brexit, and the likely prospect of an entrenched inter-Irish border if Britain opts for a hard route out of Europe. Nine out of ten Catholic respondents said they would be upset by frontier controls, while only half the Protestants felt that way.

In practice the damage from a hard border would affect both communities, but these contrasting views matter. From a Catholic-nationalist point of view, a hard inter-Irish border would be an injury inflicted on them by the assent, or the active desire, of their Protestant neighbours. To put it mildly, that sort of difference undermines both the GFA and the peace it sustains.

What’s worrying is the tone of some recent discussion over the relationship between Brexit (hard or soft) and the Irish peace. Among people who favour the gentlest Brexit or no Brexit, the hope exists that the need to shore up the GFA (as Britain has promised) will steer British policy as a whole in favour of softer options.

But that logic is also being reversed in an ominous way: if the GFA is an obstacle to the desired hard Brexit, then so much the worse for the agreement. In recent days, at least three individuals have called for a rethink of the Northern Irish deal: the Tory MP Owen Paterson; the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan; and the Ulster-born Labour MP Kate Hoey. What they all have in common is that they are staunch supporters of Brexit.

For its current tranquility, the immediate hinterland of Rostrevor saw some of bloodiest events during the so-called Troubles: bombs, sectarian murders, attacks on the security forces. That should be a sobering thought for anybody who is prepared to imperil an imperfect peace because they want a “clean” extraction from Europe.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon