Is the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement really in peril?

For all the talk of protecting the peace process, the values underpinning it are in precariously short supply all round

September 18, 2020
Looking across from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Photo: Olivier Donnars / Le Pictorium/Maxppp/PA Images
Looking across from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Photo: Olivier Donnars / Le Pictorium/Maxppp/PA Images

Never mind the alarm ringing from London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington DC—nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants, Leavers and Remainers alike from within Northern Ireland are claiming that the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is in peril.

Everyone feels the danger. And it isn’t about the articles of the 1998 Agreement so much as the conditions that the agreement created. These conditions are in jeopardy. How might calm be restored?

The 1998 Agreement was a carefully negotiated compromise. The Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol in the EU withdrawal deal was a carefully negotiated compromise. Neither of them are perfect; both entail pain. But just as concessions were made in their drawing up, so their implementation requires the conditions in which they were forged—good faith, trust, mutual respect, partnership—to be upheld.

This is appropriate. Northern Ireland is a site of contention, but also a site of continual and necessary compromise.

And all that compromise comes on the grounds of recognition that, feck it, we have to live here. People have to try and make a living. Children have to have hope of it being worth staying and not getting out at the first opportunity. If this place is marked by acute insecurity, it is also characterised by a ready pragmatism.

For all the murals and flags and songs and marches, there is a steady—and growing—push against the danger of ideology and a repelling of fear. It’s an uneasy but essential act of accommodation.

Many countries define “belonging” in terms of who is outside their borders. This is true in Northern Ireland but in quite a distinct way: identity is defined literally in terms of which countries are at our borders. The “other” really is my neighbour.

This makes politics lively and sharp and dull and tedious at the same time. It makes cultural traditions vibrant and passionate and wearying and wretched. It makes history fascinating and vivid and crushing and inescapable.

It makes “what happens next?” a question that few ask very often. And the answer to that question has always depended, really, on what is happening on the other side of the Irish sea and Irish land border.

Northern Ireland exists under a constant cloud of uncertainty—so what is certain is precious. And for a whole generation now, that has been the 1998 Agreement. Even if its enactment has been less than full and impeccable, and less than what people of all viewpoints hoped for, at least it was there.

So for the secretary of state for Northern Ireland to tell the House of Commons that the UK Government was putting forward a bill that, yes, would break international law—brazen, blunt, unapologetic— is devastatingly significant. To to claim that this is being done in the interests of Northern Ireland risks making a mockery of the finely tuned balance and common values the Agreement was intended to uphold.

We have seen enough prime ministers and taoisigh over the past century to know that we cannot trust the word of every political leader when it comes to commitments to Northern Ireland. Such commitments are often found to be rather flimsy when they conflict with party or “national” interest. This is quite so sad because Northern Ireland is filled with those who want, nay expect, British national and/or Irish national interest to include Northern Ireland. Disappointment (and thus insecurity) is a constant. Unionists aren’t surprised. Nationalists aren’t surprised. But what are they going to do? Embrace each other and an uncertain future together? Well….

That is more or less, tentatively, cautiously, what had happened with the 1998 Agreement.

And it was working because it was a legal agreement—underwritten by the two governments—in which all compromised, but also in which all could have some hope that they would not be pitched against each other.

But, where we stand at the moment, that is exactly what is happening. The fact that people from all backgrounds are pleading that the 1998 Agreement is under threat should not lead us to query the integrity of the claims nor of the Agreement. Instead those with power should take heed.

There are only a few people who want rid of the Agreement—and they are people who have not come to terms with the principles of accommodation and compromise, with the realities of Northern Ireland’s diverse, complex, “British, Irish, both” and otherness.

If you have genuine concern for the 1998 Agreement and the conditions it created, you wouldn’t utter it in any place of power—be it London, Dublin, Brussels or Washington—without doing everything to ensure that the future British-Irish and UK-EU relationship is as close as possible.

Because our neighbours aren’t moving and because our children are ready to leave.