Will Brexit Harm The Good Friday Agreement?

Hillary Clinton raises the issue of post-Brexit Anglo-Irish relations on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Exactly twenty years ago today, on the 10th of May 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought to an end decades of military and paramilitary violence, ostensibly finding a political solution to the conflicting territorial claims over Northern Ireland, and the ideological Sectarian disputes between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists.

Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the historic agreement, Hillary Clinton has highlighted the threat to Anglo-Irish relations posed by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In her first major opinion piece since losing the 2016 General Election to Donald Trump, the former Secretary of State has warned of a return to the “bad old days”, claiming that Brexit could “undermine the peace that people voted, fought and even died for”.

Banksy Does Brexit – photo by Duncan Hull

Will Brexit Harm the Deal?

As the laborious Brexit talks lumber on and join the list of “Things You Really Would’ve Thought They’d Have Sorted Out by Now”, the possibility of a hard-border being instated between the Republic and Northern Ireland has been raised, meaning ‘The Ireland Question’ has re-taken its place on the list.

Clinton is absolutely committed to peace in Ireland, presumably to protect the time-honoured American tradition of visiting the country once and claiming Irish heritage, but are her worries justified? How likely is it that Brexit will cause harm to the peace-deal?

David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, is adamant that Britain’s ongoing talks with the EU are no cause for a reappraisal of the Belfast agreement. Yesterday, Davis poured fuel on the fire by refusing that Brexit would pour fuel on the fire, accusing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of “caving in to Sinn Féin”.

Back in March in the Commons, Theresa May downplayed the flash-point of a ‘hard-border’, citing the US-Canada border as an example of a customs and trade frontier without checks. The Reluctant Brexiteers seem to hold the position that ‘The Ireland Question’ is a closed one, and that more harm will come from re-approaching it. Davis effectively turned his back on the issue, referring to it as a derailment tactic.

Leo Varadkar, Jüri Ratas and Donald Tusk. Photo by Arno Mikkor

‘Done Deal’?

Clinton and fellow ‘90s kids, Tony Blair and John Major, believe that a hard-border would shake the foundations of their diplomatic achievement. Yet the nature of the potential harm, and the harm already done, is maybe more nuanced. The Good Friday Agreement is seen by many not as a signed-and-stamped ‘deal’, but a pledge, a future-oriented statement of intent.

On Twitter, Varadkar defended the “spirit of compromise, tolerance and hope” symbolised by the agreement, and called for a continuation of these principles. This echoes Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, who said “The spirit endures… the letter of the Good Friday Agreement endures”.

These comments came alongside the rather more to-the-point claim from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that, “There never will be a border. There is not going to be a physical border across Ireland…If you tried to put it there you wouldn’t have to wait for terrorism to take it down, people would just physically pull it down – the ordinary people.” You can’t wall-in a ‘spirit’, it seems.

But you can neglect it. The harm that Brexit has done, is continuing to do, to the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic, between Ireland as a whole and mainland-UK, is to consign to the past an issue that has very real and very contemporary significance.

Perhaps it’s the idea that the Irish border-issue is somehow a ‘distraction’ or a ‘side-track’ from the main business of the withdrawal that is potentially harmful.

Brexit Secretary David Davis. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

A Fusillade of Question Marks(?)

So how likely is it that Brexit will cause harm to the peace-deal? Former US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the original peace talks, says, “It depends on what you mean by Brexit”.

Irish politicians demand to be listened to. The Clintons and the ’90s Brat Pack seem to think the whole thing reached a neat conclusion twenty years ago. David Davis is ignoring both, and looks like a man wandering around Westminster asking “What exactly do we mean by Brexit?” Most people would be forgiven for answering, “????”

The whole thing is a fusillade of question marks. The original Belfast agreement, whatever your opinions on its sufficiency in protecting the rights and identity of the Irish people, whatever your opinions on its sufficiency in condemning or even acknowledging England’s culpability as an occupying military force, did approach a seemingly total paradox with diplomatic nuance and intelligence.

There’s every possibility that the “In or Out” politics of Brexit shows that the capacity for such nuance is missing from the contemporary political sphere. Whatever we eventually mean by Brexit should include with due weight and attention the democratic voice of the Irish people and their future.


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