Today (April 10) is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. To mark the occasion, the DCU Brexit Institute blog is publishing pieces by several authors on Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. This is the fourth and final one. See also: Ben Warwick, Rights in Northern Ireland after Brexit: The Devil is in the Detail; Colin Murray, Policing and Security on the Island of Ireland Post-Brexit; David Phinnemore, Protecting the Good Friday Agreement from Brexit: Is the ‘Backstop’ Proposal Enough?
Reclaiming the Spirit of the Good Friday Agreement
Mary C. Murphy (University College Cork)
On 10 April 1998, an extraordinary political success story emerged from Northern Ireland. Following a violent conflict which had spanned four decades, the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was heralded as a historic and momentous step towards permanent peace and eventual reconciliation. The Agreement created a devolved political system with unique power-sharing institutions, and features designed to guarantee the rights of both communities and to accommodate their differing political aspirations.
For periods of time, the Agreement produced institutional innovation, policy developments, legislative outputs and improved political relations. Sporadic crises arose and were duly dealt with – often after a stand-off or suspension of the institutions, but eventually overcome by political guarantees (often fudges) and financial promise.
The Agreement marked a stage, and a crucial one at that, in the process of longer-term peace-building and community reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The latter stages of a peace process, however, are invariably its most challenging – this is when the final pieces of the conflict resolution circle are squared.
In Northern Ireland, the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement coincides with the difficult latter phases of the peace process. Many divisive issues have been addressed during the twenty years since 1998, but currently Northern Ireland faces not just an internal political crisis, but also Brexit. Outstanding issues connected to identity and legacy linger and in early 2017, contributed to the collapse of the devolved institutions. In June 2016, the EU referendum Leave result posed a different, but equally complex set of economic and political challenges. These difficulties are inextricably intertwined. Solving the internal political crisis has the potential to provide the necessary reserves of mutual trust to address the Brexit challenge.
On the face of it, the 1998 Agreement has been found wanting in terms of creating a political environment conducive to overcoming these two separate but related crises of politics and peace. Institutional provisions have proved insufficient in terms of allowing Northern Ireland to consider the impact of the Brexit vote. The Agreement however, was never meant to operate in a political vacuum where those who are party to it do not abide by, or implement, its terms.
Northern Ireland’s political parties were unable to formulate a position on how to navigate the perils of a deeply unsettling and potentially destabilising Brexit. And just seven months after the referendum vote, Northern Ireland political representatives were effectively locked out of the internal British Brexit discussions.
The irony of course is that the Brexit negotiations have been bogged down on the question of … Northern Ireland. The preference for no hard border on the island of Ireland, or more accurately the question of how to achieve this, has exposed serious tensions within Northern Ireland, and between the UK and the EU.
Northern Ireland’s future is currently being thrashed out in Brussels, but with little to no input from Northern Ireland. It seems like everyone is talking about Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future, except Northern Ireland. This makes implementation of any final Brexit settlement difficult in Northern Ireland, particularly if the disputed backstop option comes into play. Far better that the local political parties produce agreement on what fits Northern Ireland’s best interests, and then collectively contribute to shaping a UK exit from the EU which recognises those preferences. This is an admittedly challenging and complex prospect, but the example of the 1998 negotiating period provides an important template.
At this time of anniversary and reflection, it is important to remember that the 1998 Agreement emerged from a complex, tense and difficult negotiation process. There were many participants, including the British and Irish governments, and an independent chairperson, but it was the local political parties which did the bulk of the political heavy-lifting. They co-operated; they produced compromise and consensus in equal measure; they engaged in political creativity; and they demonstrated courageous leadership. The outcome of their efforts – the 1998 Belfast Agreement – brought a vital measure of peace and stability to Northern Ireland. In 2018, the time has come to consolidate and make that achievement permanent. In doing so however, the Northern Ireland political parties confront a double political crisis – internal issues and Brexit.
As the Northern Ireland peace process reaches a critical juncture, there is a pressing need for those same political parties to address Brexit and other challenges by summoning the spirit and attributes of the 1998 negotiation period – cooperation, consensus, compromise, creativity and courage. Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process, and its future post-Brexit depends on it.
Mary C. Murphy is a lecturer in politics and a Jean Monnet Professor in European Integration at University College Cork. Her book Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future: Negotiating Brexit’s Unique Case (Agenda Publishing) will be published on 18 April 2018.