As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday agreement this is your regular reminder that the longer you ignore something, the worse it gets. Actions have consequences – as do inactions.
In 2018, Sky News reported the then prime minister Boris Johnson as telling the DUP that no British prime minister could accept a border in the Irish Sea. Yet by 2019 – and determined to ‘get Brexit done’ – he agreed to do just that. When it comes to Brexit, nowhere are the stakes higher than in Northern Ireland. Shame on our government, and our prime ministers and various Brexit secretaries, not to recognise this. And more important not to act on this.
In fact it’s worse. As Peter Hain, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland 2005–2007, wrote in the Guardian on Friday, both Johnson and then Liz Truss have destroyed any trust with Dublin, Brussels and Washington. “Their ‘hard’ Brexit redrew the jagged dividing lines in Northern Ireland that had been so elegantly smoothed by the Good Friday agreement and its successors”.
The Belfast Good Friday agreement
Undeniably Brexit was always going to be a test for Northern Ireland. A test because that is where the UK and the EU land border would be and a test of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. With the latter, much of how it worked was predicated on membership of the European Union. When negotiations were going on in 1998, no one could envisage a point or a place where the UK and Island of Ireland were not both part of the EU.
As the UK in a Changing Europe explained, “it was the joint UK and Irish membership of the EU, and in particular the outworking of the customs union and single market, that facilitated the freedoms across the islands that people quickly took for granted”. In other words, “the ability of people to lead their lives and to do business as they chose on a north-south and/or east-west basis” was massive (explored in some depth here).
It’s not just about the economics, it’s also about the social conditions that the agreement brought and that were underpinned by membership of the EU, especially over the issue of rights and justice. The ability to cross the island’s border freely, and to enjoy access to the same protections or rights, has been a significant feature of bringing some stability back.
Government failure to take account of the peace settlement in Northern Ireland
Anyone with any modicum of understanding of the hard fought and won peace settlement in Northern Ireland would have been aware of this. Nor is it hard to understand. The Belfast Good Friday agreement is 32-pages long. That’s all. It is clear and unambiguous what the UK government signed up to 23 years ago. It was nothing short of shocking when Dominic Raab, former Brexit secretary, conceded he had not read all of it – and it goes some way to explaining the subsequent mess the government has got itself into.
Of course, it did not have to be like this. And much of what is unravelling now lies with the actions of successive Conservative governments post-2016.
They have failed to take account of the fact the treaty is predicated on the principle of devolution, with the principles of consent and self-determination woven through it. It is also an international treaty and any attempt to dilute the UK’s adherence to the European convention on human rights would probably breach it.
And of course, there was the delicious irony of Rishi Sunak’s claim that Northern Ireland was now the world’s “most exciting economic zone” with access to both EU and UK markets. In an attempt to sell his new Windsor framework he scored the home goal of pointing out exactly what the rest of us are missing post 2016.
We cannot ignore the problems created by Brexit
All of this is self-imposed by successive Tory politicians. The single biggest decision, and one made AFTER the referendum, was the decision to leave the single market and customs union and, as a result, the need for an economic border with the EU. As soon as you go down that route you inevitably find, and have to manage, a border. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Northern Ireland requires statesmanship. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to find a peaceful and legal settlement. Jonathan Powell, chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997–2007, wrote this two years ago but it remains true today:
“The worst problems in Ireland have always happened when Britain ignores it. And it means no more using it as a battering ram in a new post-Brexit conflict with the EU. Most of all, it means coming clean with the people of Northern Ireland about where they stand. The government can no longer claim clean hands if it fails to take these steps and the result of its political approach is the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland.”