Brexit Institute News

The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

Rory O’Connell (Ulster University)


The murder of the journalist Lyra McKee on the eve of Good Friday 2019 is a tragic reminder of the successes and failures of the Peace Process, and the challenges facing it.

That her death made international headlines reflects in one sense the success of the ‘negative peace’ secured by the 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. The coverage reflects the fact that this is a relatively rare event in 21st century Northern Ireland. The relative absence of political violence is an important, never to be underestimated, achievement.

At the same time, the killing demonstrates that even this success is qualified. Paramilitarism remains a reality, as the work of the Independent Reporting Commission documents. Nor is this the first death at the hands of paramilitaries. More than 100 people have been killed since the 1998 Agreement. This level of political violence demonstrates that the Agreement has not delivered on all its promises.

This is not just a matter of the elimination of political violence. Lyra McKee’s writings eloquently summarise the failure to deliver a ‘positive peace’, a society in which all can enjoy human rights, dignity and equality:

“We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.” Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies.

The Agreement foresaw many human rights and equality mechanisms to build a society dedicated to the ‘’the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.”

Yet many of these human rights and equality measures have either not been implemented, or where implemented there has been a rollback in their implementation. The Equality Coalition (an umbrella organization for scores of civil society groups organized by UNISON and CAJ) has launched a manifesto for a rights-based return to power-sharing that calls for full implementation of the peace settlement, addressing international law obligations and ensuring power is ‘working within the rules’.

The failure to fully implement all aspects of the Agreement has to be seen in the light of three major contextual factors:

The UK’s decision to adopt austerity policies has harmed human rights across the UK; austerity risks harm in a fragile post-conflict society that suffered socially and economically as a consequence of the conflict. Northern Ireland secured important mitigations for some austerity-driven welfare changes but these are due to end in March 2020.

The absence of a local Executive for more than two years means that there is no one to drive forward policy reforms and there is a startling democratic deficit.

And then there is Brexit.


The 1998 Agreement and Brexit

The Brexit referendum, the rhetoric used by some pro-Brexit advocates and the manner in which the UK has negotiated Brexit has been unsettling for the peace process and the protection of human rights and equality.

Media reports highlight that dissident republicans regard Brexit as a ‘huge help’, an opportunity to exploit and to recruit new members. Earlier research by BrexitLawNI quoted dissidents who saw Brexit as ‘manna from heaven’ and also reported concerns that Brexit and the enhanced possibility of Irish unity would have an unsettling effect on loyalist paramilitaries.

The Agreement – notwithstanding the weaknesses in the peace process and the challenges our society now faces – was a remarkable achievement. The conflict in Northern Ireland presented genuinely difficult interconnected problems about sovereignty, identity, and the border. These are vital and difficult issues in any society, and even more so a deeply divided one.

The conflict concerned the fundamental political question as to who had sovereignty over this territory – the UK or Irish state? This was connected to the identity question – did people identify as British or Irish? And the border was crucial in this –the issue of principle (should there be a land border at all), security and militarization issues around the border, the artificiality of the border, the effect on local communities and cross-border relations.

All of these are difficult, sensitive conundrums. Remarkably the Agreement and the wider peace process developed sophisticated, practical, nuanced, principle-based solutions or at least civil ways forward.

On sovereignty, the Agreement recognizes the “legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status”. The union with Britain is legitimate as it rests on the wishes of a majority of the people; the aspiration for Irish unity is also legitimate and if supported by a majority of the people in the future both governments will give effect to that. Brexit has energized debate on the prospect of a unification referendum or border poll.

On identity, the Agreement recognises the “birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland”. This birthright clause recognizes the complexities of identity in this territory and contains important undertakings by the two governments. As recent controversies show, the implications of this still need working through.

On the border, the Agreement recognizes the importance of cross-border cooperation, especially in its provisions on the North-South Ministerial Council, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. This is against the backdrop of British and Irish membership of the European Union, and the need for the Council to consider and feed into relevant EU programmes. The normalization of security arrangements and the removal of security installations also features in the Agreement, contributing to the demilitarization of the border. More broadly the UK and Irish membership of the EU meant that the single market and customs union (as well as the historic Common Travel Area) played a role in downplaying the significance of the nominally international border; at the same time the EU provided significant funding for Northern Ireland to support peace and reconciliation and cross-border cooperation. In this way, the European Union contributed to the nuanced solutions of the Agreement and the Peace Process, and to improving North-South relations.


Sovereignty. Identity. Borders.

As with the Northern Ireland conflict, these themes of sovereignty, identity and borders have loomed large in Brexit. Whereas the Agreement and Peace Process found sophisticated, nuanced solutions to these, based on often painful dialogue between different parties, it is difficult to reach the same conclusion about the Brexit process.

Advocates of Brexit, or at least some of them, have pursued language which emphasizes traditional and supposedly straightforward conceptions here – sovereignty is about taking back control, there is an assertion of a British identity which renounces the concurrent European Union citizenship (and arguably overlooks multiple identities within the UK), and control of the border features as important especially in the context of immigration. Complexity and nuance do not feature in such slogans as ‘taking back control of our borders, money and laws…’. At the UK wide level this is worrying enough; but when contrasted with the delicate position in Northern Ireland the dissonance is disturbing.

It did not need to be this way. The Agreement and Peace Process was the result of difficult, painful and painstaking steps involving many different local, national and international actors, including politicians, civil servants, activists, international organisations. British politicians and civil servants played their part in constructing those sophisticated and nuanced solutions. But this took time – decades in which thousands lives were lost.

The simple slogans of Brexit cannot resolve the situation the UK finds itself in or deal with the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Resolving these requires decision-makers, especially UK decision-makers, to rediscover the lessons of the Agreement and the Peace Process. Perhaps the most important lesson, and to borrow the words of Lyra McKee from a different context, is that:

“we need to have conversations, difficult conversations, and fight for the hearts and minds of those who oppose us”.



Rory O’Connell is Director of the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University. He was a member of the BrexitLawNI research team and sits on the executive of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). He can be reached at and tweets @rjjoconnell.

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