‘A Beacon to the World’: The Good Friday Agreement at Twenty-One
Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Dublin City University)
The Good Friday Agreement, which is 21 years old this month, institutionalised a peace process that has fundamentally altered day-to-day life in Ireland, where an entire generation has grown up without the spectre of violence. The labyrinthine road to a negotiated agreement after numerous false dawns confirmed the oft-noted observation that peace is a process, not an event.
A vital component of the peace process, and the agreements that underpin it, has been the notion of a shared political future. As denial of civil rights had fuelled the Troubles during the late 1960s, a peaceful transition from protracted conflict required parity of esteem for both nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement guarantees equality of political, civil, social and cultural rights. Moreover, the accord was designed so that neither unionists nor nationalists would be able to achieve much in Northern Ireland without first securing the agreement of their former adversaries with whom they now shared power.
The Good Friday Agreement did not solve the conflict; rather it sought to manage it. The guns are gone but the decommissioning of mindsets takes much longer and is ultimately the only guarantee for long-term progress. It was hoped that the accord could help erode borders and reduce animosities within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.
Brexit, however, has dispelled many of the old certainties and assumptions on which the peace process is predicated and has raised several important questions regarding Northern Ireland’s status within the UK and its relationship with the rest of the island. As the EU treaties of Rome, Maastricht and Lisbon underpinned the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement and its successor pacts, many fear that Brexit will undermine the work of reconciliation and destabilise the region.
Consent is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly the principle that there could be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without a majority agreeing to such a change. Brexit threatens to fundamentally alter Northern Ireland’s status against the explicit wishes of the majority that had indicated a wish to stay within the EU. As the people of Northern Ireland are by birth-right entitled to be Irish citizens it is unclear how their rights, not least as EU citizens, can be protected post-Brexit. Many fear that the reintroduction of a physical border between the north and south of Ireland could have a negative impact on the peace process.
Key to the ultimate success of the Good Friday Agreement was the fact that it was negotiated under the tutelage of the British and Irish governments, with active support from the US and the EU. The two governments did much of the running throughout the peace process and proved vital in maintaining momentum when relationships broke down within Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, no such unity of purpose currently exists between Dublin and London on how best to preserve the gains arising from the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP’s pivotal position of influence, whereby it has enjoyed power without responsibility within the UK government, has removed any incentive for Arlene Foster’s party to compromise in order to re-constitute the power-sharing administration at Stormont. Additionally, as the British Government’s survival depends on maintaining DUP support it has undermined London’s ability to be ‘rigorously impartial’ in its dealings with Northern Ireland, as required by the Good Friday Agreement. While the parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster is temporary the damage it might do to the peace process could be more enduring.
Responding to the fears of many northern nationalists Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared in December 2017:
To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these [Brexit] negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish government.
These are strong and reassuring words but they also require equally strong and reassuring actions. Though it has occasionally faltered, the Northern Ireland peace process has endured for over two decades. It is vital now to defend the Good Friday Agreement, not only because of what it has achieved but also for what it represents. The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, put it well when addressing the Oireachtas yesterday: ‘We treasure the Good Friday accord because it is not just a treaty, it is an ethic, it is a value, it is an article of faith for us, it is a beacon to the world’.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Associate Professor at the School of Law and Government, DCU, and an affiliated member of the Brexit Institute. He is the author of From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2018).