Brexit might threaten the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland
10 April 2018 marked 20 years since the Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement,1 which brought peace to Northern Ireland. Today, with the UK undoubtedly moving away from the EU, and Northern Ireland having been without devolved executive power for over a year, it is relevant to ask how the agreement has worked and how it has influenced life in Northern Ireland. And, naturally, how Brexit will influence its implementation.
Back to the Beginning: The Birth of and Background to the Agreement
The Belfast Agreement put an end to the violent conflict in Northern Ireland, or “the Troubles”, that had lasted for 30 years between two communities: (mainly Catholic Irish) Republicans and (mainly Protestant British) Unionists. The roots of this opposition go deep. Serious conflicts began in the 16th and 17th centuries, after the English Reformation, which mostly did not affect Ireland. The religious conflict was tied to the struggle for power; the monarchy also had to forcibly secure its presence due to the fear that Catholic France and Spain would use Ireland as a back door to invade Britain. The growing British presence was met with opposition by the Irish (and “Old English” who had assimilated with them). In order to suppress this, Britain continuously tightened the laws that restricted Catholic rights.2
When the Republic of Ireland was created with the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, the island’s six north-eastern, largely Protestant, counties in the province of Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom. Such a solution had inherent contradictions from the beginning. First, the Irish saw this as a temporary solution—even the Irish Constitution spoke of the entire island as one uniform territory. Second, the rights of Catholics living in the territories that remained part of the UK continued to be restricted, as confirmed by the reports of human rights organisations, the International Court of Justice and even a committee created by the Governor of Northern Ireland.3 Even though discrimination on religious grounds had been declared illegal, in practice the Irish still experienced significantly worse conditions in both housing and the jobs market. What was most important, however, was the limited opportunity for participation in local governance, and they were naturally kept away from power structures. The British, on the other hand, saw Irish disloyalty and the constantly growing Irish proportion in the population of Northern Ireland as a constant threat.
The long-simmering antagonism erupted into violent conflict in 1968–9, with clashes between Unionist-supported police forces and protestors supporting Catholic rights. The previously peaceful and spontaneous protests grew into an extensive Catholic riot, and Britain sent military units to get the situation under control. As the topic of this article is first and foremost the peace agreement and its results, I will not give an overview of the Troubles. Suffice it to say that the violence extended beyond the borders of Northern Ireland, and in 30 years more than 3,500 people were killed and some 48,000 sustained injuries as a result of the conflict.
The 1998 peace agreement was not the first attempt to end the conflict—the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was signed between the governments of Ireland and the UK with the purpose of bringing peace, but mostly to relieve tensions between the two governments.4 Since the political forces of Northern Ireland were not involved in the negotiations, neither community fully accepted the agreement and violence continued. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hard-line policies left their mark on crisis management in the 1980s, which in Northern Ireland was expressed in uncompromised suppression of Republican rebels by the police and continuous military presence. In addition, the British government of the time refused to negotiate with people considered terrorists. When John Major became prime minister in 1990, this direction changed. In addition to talks with the Unionists, the British government negotiated (initially in secret) with Republican leaders. The Irish government also communicated with representatives of both sides. The heads of the feuding sides also increasingly began to look for opportunities for a peaceful solution.
The role played by the US in the peace process must not be overlooked. The numerous and influential Irish diaspora in the US5 worked on all levels—it influenced public opinion, supported the Republican movement with finances (and arms), and demanded the president take an active role. Officially, the US continued with its policy of non-interference for a long time to steer clear of a dispute with the UK, its important ally in the Cold War. This policy was changed by Bill Clinton, who fulfilled two of his election promises as a result of pressure from business owners of Irish origin who had supported his campaign: he met in Washington with the head of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams (regarded as a terrorist by the British government), and in 1995 appointed former senator George Mitchell as a special envoy to Northern Ireland. The task of the special envoy was to act as an intermediary in achieving and keeping peace.6
As a result of all the previous factors and policies, the peace process finally began to take shape—London and Dublin signed a peace declaration in late 1993, and in 1994 the IRA7 declared a ceasefire, followed by other forces involved in the conflict. The peace was later broken for a while, but was restored in 1997 and finally, on 10 April 1998, the Belfast Agreement was signed. Many of its important principles, such as power-sharing between the two communities, and the role played by the government of the Republic, were already set out in earlier agreements,8 but were now consolidated in detail. The agreement’s main and most important part was officially multilateral, and in addition to the governments it was signed by the representatives of eight political parties. The only party left out of the agreement was the DUP.9
The most important clauses of the agreement concerned:
1) The status and identity of Northern Ireland
- The government of the Republic of Ireland acknowledged Northern Ireland as part of the UK for the first time in a legally binding way.
- The agreement confirmed the right of the citizens of Northern Ireland to decide whether they wished to be part of the UK or of the Republic, and the right of the entire island’s population to decide on the unification of Ireland.
- The agreement gave any Northern Irish citizen the right to hold either British and/or Irish citizenship.
2) Cooperation and power-sharing
- Under the agreement, the coalition in Northern Ireland must be formed by the two largest political forces—in this way, both Unionists and Republicans must always be represented in the government—and the offices of ministers and committee chairs must be proportionally distributed between the biggest parties. (In the past, the coalition had been formed in a traditional way—through negotiations.)
- A number of institutions dedicated to Irish-British and North-South cooperation development were founded.
3) Peaceful and democratic solutions
- The agreement obligates paramilitary groups to decommission weapons and
- the British government to reduce military presence in the area.
The agreement meant that both countries and both communities were forced to make some painful concessions. The Republic had to remove from its constitution the article that asserted a territorial claim over the entire island, while the British government had to give the Irish government the right to have its say in matters concerning Northern Ireland, by means of cooperative organisations.
Support for the agreement was significantly higher among Catholics. Only half of Unionists supported it, as they felt it made too many concessions to “terrorists” and Republicans—for example, an amnesty for members of the IRA, but also obligatory Republican participation in power-sharing, and the possibility of the unification of Ireland. The more radically minded DUP even left the negotiations over this. The agreement also gave no guarantee of the relinquishment of arms. In spite of all this, a majority of voters in referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were in favour of the agreement (71% and 94% respectively).
How Has the Agreement Been Implemented and What Has It Brought to Northern Ireland?
It could be said that, at least initially, the path to implementation was a rocky one. Most importantly, major acts of violence stopped. However, neither side truly began to decommission until 2001 and both parties kept some weapons. These continued to be used to settle scores, and armed structures were a good breeding-ground for criminal gangs, which began to deal in drugs, robberies and the like. A report commissioned by the UK government in 2015 found that the structures and activities of many paramilitary organisations still survived in some form, and they were also armed.
The division of power between Unionists and Republicans has also been uneasy. Northern Ireland has been without devolved executive government for 15 months and there are no signs of the parties coming to an agreement any time soon. In the light of this, some have begun to voice the opinion that the Good Friday Agreement has reached its limit. However, difficulties in power-sharing are nothing new; Unionists were against working with their arch-enemies from the very beginning. The longest period without executive power was from 2002 to 2007, when the main issue was delays in decommissioning weapons.
The current problems over forming a government are largely tied to the shift in the balance of power in the region. While the leading parties of the power-sharing government immediately after the agreement were the moderate UUP10 and SDLP11 and the governing model was formed with them in mind, the more radical DUP and Sinn Féin have been dominant since 2007. Unfortunately, this seems to be a sign that it is easier to win votes with positions that pit communities against each other, and these are stressed in campaigns and policies. The peace has not brought about the integration of the communities. They still live apart, and largely attend separate schools and universities—but not only that. There are still irreconcilable contradictions in the interpretation of historical events, and the other community’s symbols and traditions are met with public derision. Even though large-scale violence has been avoided so far, demonstrations have not been without incident. Both communities feel under pressure—the Irish/Republicans still feel like they are not treated as equals and Unionists feel their earlier position is weakening.
Another factor is the continuous proportionate growth of Catholics in the population, as Catholic families are traditionally bigger, and more Catholics have moved into the area. According to the latest census (2011), Protestants barely remained the majority in Northern Ireland. In 2016, 35% of the population identified as exclusively or mainly Irish, 39% as exclusively or mainly British and 17% as both. This is reflected in election results—in the Assembly elections held on 2 March 2017, Unionists only achieved a one-seat majority over Republicans. Reaching an agreement between two parties of equal strength is harder—the current coalition negotiations are at a standstill since Sinn Féin is demanding a separate law on the protection of the Irish language even more strongly than before.
The scales have been tilted the other way by a third factor—the DUP’s status in Westminster has also strengthened its position.12 In addition, it seems that the possibility of having a say on the central government level decreases people’s lust for power on a local level, which is why the DUP may be more eager to let the province stay under London’s direct control. This is, however, completely unacceptable to Sinn Féin.
The most successful results of the peace agreement have been the cooperation organisations—the North South Ministerial Council, North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, British–Irish Council, British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference and British–Irish Parliamentary Assembly. These have become a good platform for dialogue between London and Dublin, whose relationship has been improving for the past 20 years.
How Might Brexit Influence the Peace Agreement?
The Republic’s government has repeatedly stressed that Brexit must not damage the peace agreement, and the same has been expressed by Theresa May. How might Brexit influence the implementation of the agreement? First, it should be underlined that the most important context to the agreement is provided by the EU membership of both Ireland and the UK. This has been the basis for solving such matters as citizenship—a large number of people currently have the right to both British and EU citizenship. The Republic of Ireland is very worried about the British decision to leave the common market and customs union, which inevitably means building customs posts to check goods—or, at least, Theresa May has so far not been able to convince the Republic otherwise. The main problem about borders is, however, not their being an obstacle to active trade, but the matter of security. The last time the island had a visible border was during the Troubles, and people associate it with that period. For that reason, people fear that (just like before) even the smallest customs and border control posts will become targets for attacks, and they will need police, and perhaps even military, protection. This, in turn, further increases the likelihood of attacks.
The second—and less highlighted—problem, which is nevertheless also connected to security and stability in the region, is the possible termination of or decrease in EU subsidies. One of the poorest and historically most unstable regions of the UK, Northern Ireland has been hugely dependent on subsidies from both the EU Peace Fund and the Common Agricultural Policy since the 1990s. According to Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, EU subsidies make up 87% of the income of Northern Irish farmers.13 Should this money stop and not be replaced with an equal subsidy from the central British government (which the latter has promised, but only up to 2020), people fear that very serious social problems will arise. And everybody knows violence could easily follow again.
Third, the cooperation network and institutions created by the agreement are premised on both states belonging to the EU—these parts of the agreement must now be reviewed with a critical eye. The agreement also contains clauses concerning human rights under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Overall, Brexit has further increased tensions between the two political communities and the powers representing them. Opinions had already clashed before the referendum. While the DUP had been a strong supporter of Brexit from the beginning, the Republicans wanted to remain in the EU. When the referendum results showed that 56% of Northern Ireland voters chose to remain in the EU, Sinn Féin’s leaders said that this would provide a push for the speedier unification of Ireland.14 They have been demanding that, as part of Brexit, the region should be given a special status, which would tie it more closely to the EU (read: the Republic). Leading politicians in the Republic are also talking about the unification of Ireland in the foreseeable future. Naturally, the DUP will not stand for a decision that would separate the region from the UK, and they are blaming their political rivals and the Republic’s government for taking advantage of Brexit to unify Ireland. The relationship is also not helped by the fact that the good relations between London and Dublin in past years are constantly being tested as the negotiations progress.
In conclusion it can be said that the agreement reached 20 ago was without doubt a great diplomatic achievement that has given Northern Ireland an opportunity to develop normally. Its implementation has been helped by the participation of major political powers, and the agreement has forced them to cooperate. A common cause has also brought London and Dublin closer together. The stability of the region is still fragile, and maintaining peace is not a given but requires constant, conscious work. Each serious disturbance—which Brexit definitely is—may topple what has been achieved thus far.
2 As the Irish had slowly adopted the English language, at least in business affairs, community identity was based on religion rather than language.
5 Over 40 million US residents claim to be of Irish origin.
6 Special envoys held office in 1995–2011 and 2014–7. President Trump has shown no readiness to appoint a special envoy.
7 Irish Republican Army, the main Irish paramilitary organisation.
8 Sunningdale Agreement (1974), Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985).
9 Democratic Unionist Party.
10 Ulster Unionist Party.
11 Social Democratic and Labour Party.
12 Following the UK general election in June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May sought and achieved a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the ten DUP Members of Parliament in order to establish a numerical majority in the House of Commons.
14 In 2016, two-thirds of voters preferred Northern Ireland to stay a part of the UK (see www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2016/Political_Attitudes/NIRELN…). At the same time, 16% replied that Brexit would incline them towards the unification of Ireland (see www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2016/Political_Attitudes/UNIRFA…)
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.