If you understand anything about Irish politics – and it seems there are few in Great Britain who do – there is one thing certain: the last thing any Fine Gael-led Irish government wants to do is upset the current constitutional status on Ireland, let alone try to impose a United Ireland on the people of Northern Ireland. The rhetoric of the last weeks, stems from the opposite: the Irish government is frightened stiff that Brexit and the potential for a hard border will create the very crisis they have worked decades to avoid.
The Good Friday Agreement was the historic alternative to the British-Irish stand-off. This way, Irish Identity could be protected within Northern Ireland through embedding ‘the North’ in a complex network of relationships. Since at least 1985, this has been the national constitutional ‘taken-for-granted’: there would be no change to the border, but changes across the border in Northern Ireland ensuring that discrimination and anti-Irishness there became a memory, that citizenship rights and open cross-border partnership is guaranteed and that the key areas of politics, the police and cultural life in Northern Ireland were shared. Importantly, change, and the possibility of a United Ireland are permitted and would be decided in Ireland. On that basis, consent to British sovereignty in ‘the North’ was possible for the first time in 800 years or so.
All of this is incompatible with a hard border or no-deal Brexit. The Good Friday Agreement reassured nationalists in Northern Ireland that being Irish could be separated from being part of the Irish state. A hard border destroys the soft tolerance of 20 years which allowed Irish Presidents to visit Northern Ireland without hindrance, Irish companies to work seamlessly across the border and border communities to regrow close local relationships.
Northern Ireland behind a hard Brexit border looks like a very cold house for anyone outside the consensus which is why a Hard Brexit has the potential to open up very serious division on the core principle of the Agreement: consent. If Unionists took consent to mean a single one-off decision about British sovereignty and borders, Nationalist consent to sovereignty was conditional on the rest of the package – ‘all of the aspects of the Good Friday Agreement’, if you like. If Brexit down-grades cross-border relations, interrupts the flow of culture and trade and prevents everyday participation of Ireland in the affairs of Northern Ireland, then consent, and with it reconciliation itself, come into question.
Setting aside the visible and real interests in trade and travel, the deepest anxiety is reserved for the intangible but unmistakable sense of threat behind the Brexiteers aggressive anti-foreigner jingoism. The formal business of diplomacy is not the thing itself. The real and most disturbing thing is the ‘music below the music’, the ominous tone and relentless drumbeat of explosive anger, arrogance and hints of violence. The problem with undertone, is that you don’t hear it, if you don’t hear it – you don’t get it, if you don’t get it. There is a lot of tone-deafness about, especially in London. Unionists in Northern Ireland, do hear it when an Irish government raises its volume and the pitch to the point of shrill as they did in the last weeks. They react immediately allergically and angrily to their own perceived threats and historic pattern.
The bottom line remains: only the Good Friday Agreement made Northern Ireland legitimate. Undermine its fragile net, through unilateral hard borders, and consent to Northern Ireland starts to wobble. We are all playing with fire.
Last week’s wording turned out to be subtle. But its meaning needs to be crystal clear and hard as diamonds: the United Kingdom has committed to stop unilateralism in Ireland. ‘No change is agreed until everyone agrees.’ The promises in the text will have to have the weight of law, or else everything will come back on to the table:
“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all- island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”
The debate on Brexit so far has already done enormous damage to the cause of reconciliation in Ireland. By forcing parties to side on the very issue we cannot side about – the border-Brexit has generated greater mistrust than for decades. The Assembly is down and seems out for the moment. James Brokenshire will find his own room for manoeuvre, and hence his legitimacy, restricted every time a Brexiteer makes an unguarded remark or every time he becomes a member of a partisan british government rather than a spokesman for inter-community stability here.
There is the promise of a working group on Ireland in the text. It needs to include more than a handful of trade negotiators, and make sure it has a firm grasp of undertones and nuance. I would suggest it meets soon, and often, and it takes as its starting and finishing point that reconciliation itself must be protected. We have a window of opportunity, but only that.