Brexit will break us unless we get serious.
At the level of rhetoric at least, everyone, is more committed to the Good Friday Agreement than ever.
The European Union believes that it should be protected ‘in all its parts‘. The British Government believes that this ‘bedrock of the peace process’ should be ‘considered and safeguarded’ during Brexit. And that might be that, were it not so patently obvious that Brexit is straining British-Irish relations more profoundly than anything since the 1970s.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the central strut of the Good Friday Agreement is shared government inside Northern Ireland.
In reality the Agreement stands or falls on its ability to give meaningful expression to the wider, more all-encompassing ‘birth-right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.’ That always required the participation of governments and, by implication, the peoples of Britain in Ireland.
The key was not the detail of each specific deal, but the emergence of a pattern and habit of taking our partners into account in place of seeking to thwart, insult or humiliate our enemies at every turn.
The political heart of the Agreement is the willingness to find solutions to the old show-stoppers: sovereignty, borders and identity. And none of these knots can or could be loosened without intimate North-South interaction, willed into being by determined East-West co-operation, often in the face of scepticism and even hostility in Northern Ireland.
Let’s be clear: if the UK and Ireland cannot find agreed and workable solutions on sovereignty, borders and identity, there is no Good Friday Agreement. If there is no Good Friday Agreement, then the promise of a ‘them and us’ instead of a ‘them or us’ for Northern Ireland has no constitutional or political form. So much for the ‘hand of history’, or of hope rhyming with it.
‘Safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement’ is not the same as propping up a coalition of mutual loathing in Stormont. It means an acceptance that Northern Ireland can only exist and prosper within a dense and complex network of relationships which were finely-tuned and hammered out in 1998. As the document makes explicit, the three strands are all important, and mutually interdependent. Damage to one, damages the whole. Even more, it depends on human rights, equality, civic participation, policing reform, parity of esteem, community relations, honouring victims, releasing prisoners and above all, to committing to genuine reconciliation.
When people blithely tell you that ‘creativity’ is the answer to the Brexit border crisis, remind them that the Good Friday Agreement is already the apex of diplomatic creativity in peace-making -anywhere, ever. None of which means that it shouldn’t or couldn’t be altered.
The arrangements for power-sharing have demonstrably failed to promote reconciliation and have fostered sectarian rivalry in an alarming degree. The abuse of the community veto in the Agreement has brought Stormont into disrepute but the point remains: change must respect and enhance the foundational relationships, not trash them unilaterally.
Over the years, the relentless reduction of the Agreement to the thin soup of power-sharing between the extremes- enabled and facilitated by the neglect and indifference of both Governments it must be said – has already weakened its reconciliation purpose and now we have Brexit.
The crisis of Brexit in Ireland is that it takes a unilateral hammer to the fundamental fabric of inter-relationships on which the Good Friday Agreement, and the political governability of Northern Ireland depends. Furthermore, by providing literally no clear answers to what happens next it has opened up a space of uncertainty which has, first slowly and now rapidly, created serious fears among both Unionists and Nationalists about what might happen. Conservative columnists in Northern Ireland are openly pointing to the Alliance Party as potential quislings for contemplating a special arrangement for the North, and Nationalists, especially those along the border worry about the destruction of their economy, society and peace. There are some things you should never do in a peace process and uncontrolled unilateralism and generating uncertainty are two of them.
If we are to make progress, we have firstly to face an inconvenient truth: the Good Friday Agreement can only be saved if the nature of the border and future arrangements in Northern Ireland are negotiated and agreed. Sovereignty, like everything else in the Agreement, is subject to the overarching principle that ‘Nothing is Agreed until Everything is Agreed.’ British sovereignty was indeed agreed- as part of a package with everything else. If it is to change it necessarily reopens the conversation.
So if the rhetoric of both the EU and the UK about the Agreement is to amount to more than bland and irresponsible platitudes, Brexit will require a commitment to work through Ireland’s issues seriously before concluding the final Brexit deal. London does not appear to have the appetite for either time or subtlety.
The Irish government and the EU have their clear positions but being sure that the formal blame will rest with the UK is not the same as finding a solution for a horrendously complex problem. If both were truly serious, we would already have a dedicated standing conference on reconciling Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement on the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Failing that, the consequence will be an increasingly stark and unhappy set of choices in Northern Ireland. In the end, either Brexit will shape the future of the North or Northern Ireland will shape Brexit and the decision will have its own historic consequences.