Disillusionment. That’s the feeling these days among many people like myself who have been the most passionate advocates of the Good Friday Agreement. When I hear Arlene Foster’s extraordinary choice of words (‘the red line is blood red’) in talking about the DUP resisting even the most common sense extra checks down the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland in regulatory and customs alignment with the EU, I wonder what has changed in unionism over the past 20 years.When I hear Sinn Fein describing the British government as the “main conflict protagonist” in the Northern Troubles, despite the IRA having killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined, I wonder what has changed in republicanism over the past 20 years. When I hear that Catholic police officers – those who came into the PSNI as part of the 1998 Agreement’s most successful element, policing reform – are once again not being posted to their home communities because of the dissident republican threat to them, I am close to despair.
Brexit, of course, is the main culprit. The voters of Britain barely spared a thought for the effect of their seismic 2016 vote on the sister island. Shockingly, a recent opinion poll appeared to show that the great majority of British Leave voters (along with their Northern unionist counterparts) even now believe that collapsing the Irish peace process is a price worth paying for leaving the EU. The result of that vote has been that the two Ulster tribes have returned to their traditional trenches with a vengeance.
In particular, Brexit has allowed the most fear-filled and eurosceptic elements in the DUP – led by its Westminster MPs – to take a hard-line anti-EU stance that is, while intrinsic to their psychological DNA, entirely at odds with the interests of the economically exposed province they purport to represent. In the longer-term, if a pro-EU Scotland eventually breaks away from the UK, it may also be seen to be at odds with their political interests. And do they not recognise that a hard Irish border following the UK crashing out of the EU is just the kind of development that will force moderate nationalists into the arms of Sinn Fein, and make the dissidents more attractive to disadvantaged young nationalists? It is very hard not to conclude that this is a classic example of ‘stupid unionism.’
For its part, Sinn Fein, in true Pavlovian fashion, has seized the opportunity to push for “accelerated reunification post-Brexit”. Just as the unionists are paranoid about the maintenance of the union, so republicans are obsessed with the holy grail of a politically united Ireland. The well-being of the people of Northern Ireland rarely comes into the reckoning for either side.
For me the major miracle of the 1998 Agreement was the effective removal of the Irish border, while Northern Ireland stayed constitutionally part of the United Kingdom (alongside the Single European Act which removed most of the EU’s trade borders). In my 14 years heading the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (1999-2013) I was conscious of being part of an extraordinary experiment in bringing people together through practical cooperation projects, many of them funded by the EU, in business, agriculture, transport, health, education, local government, planning, the environment, tourism, inland waterways, the marine and a dozen other areas. For a decade and a half there was a benign window of opportunity that might, just might, have begun the process of taking the poison out of centuries of bad relationships on this island simply through helping the people of the two jurisdictions to get to know each other by working, learning and enjoying common pursuits together.
It might have not have been big or fast enough for some of us, but it was an important step towards a genuinely reconciled Ireland. As that wise man Sir George Quigley said just before his death in 2013: “The North-South relationship has been transformed. Someone, indeed, has referred to its unprecedented ordinariness and normality today. We seem to have been able to resolve North-South tensions in a way which still too often escapes us as far as the traditional divisions within the Northern Ireland community itself are concerned.” Is all that good work now coming to an end?
And of course Brexit has poisoned the two relationships that were crucial to the drawing up of the Good Friday Agreement and to its relative success for many years. The decades of painstaking work to build good relations between the Irish and British governments, and between the former and the political representatives of unionism, appear to have come to naught. Relations between Dublin, London and Belfast are now frosty at best, toxic at worst. 20 years ago Ireland was led towards peace by genuinely courageous and visionary leaders (however flawed in other areas) such as Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Major, Albert Reynolds, Mo Mowlam, David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, David Ervine and from the US, George Mitchell and Bill Clinton. Later they were joined, after ‘road to Damascus’ conversions, by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. If you think leadership doesn’t matter, compare these major figures with their picayune equivalents today.
But if one looks more closely, is it only Brexit? I have recently been reading the Belfast-based political analyst Robin Wilson’s 2010 book on the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation¹. Even given that Wilson was always a sceptic when it came to the Agreement, part of the school that thought it would institutionalise sectarianism, this provides some disturbing evidence for re-evaluation.
Wilson points out that the rot set in early, on the morning the Good Friday Agreement was signed, when Tony Blair gave David Trimble a side letter promising to review the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive six months after the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up if the IRA did not begin to decommission its arms. This was a promise Blair was unable or unwilling to fulfil, and it planted the seeds for the eventual implosion (and electoral collapse) of the Ulster Unionist Party because of the IRA’s failure to decommission, and its replacement by the DUP.
Even more importantly, there was a huge absence of trust there from the beginning: in the first few months of the new Executive the Ulster Unionists could not bring themselves even to speak to their Sinn Fein colleagues. By the time the first UUP-SDLP led government collapsed in October 2002, the atmosphere around the cabinet table was described by one civil servant as “poisonous.” There was an almost complete absence of collective responsibility or joint decision making. Sustainable power-sharing government just can’t work like that.
As the late David Stevens of the Corrymeela Community pointed out, there was a “deep paradox in this: you have a deeply distrustful society and for government to work people have to trust each other.” Yet MLAs being required to ‘designate’ themselves as unionist or nationalist, allied to the ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system, effectively institutionalised this distrust.
Thirdly there was little sense of collective loyalty to the common institutions and the common place the four sectarian parties were governing: Northern Ireland. As former Taoiseach John Bruton said: “The Agreement itself, and the institutions it creates, must become the focus of a new loyalty. The Agreement is not the means to some other end. It must be seen as an end in itself. Unless that happens, every ordinary proposal from one side will be seen by the other through a prism of suspicion.” In their very different ways, David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, Martin McGuinness – and latterly Peter Robinson – tried their best to forge a fragile loyalty to a new shared dispensation. But once we got to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill that noble aim had been all but abandoned.
A senior Dublin official summed it up for Wilson in 2008, at a time when there was considerable optimism in the air after the resumption of power-sharing a year earlier. “I doubt if the current model is in the long term democratically desirable or a particularly good idea from an administrative point of view either. In other words, I would like to see the possibility in due course of evolution towards some form of voluntary coalition arrangement, with some sort of cross-community threshold of support. That would seem to me to make more sense in terms of accountability, the possibility of change, and avoidance of entrenchment of interests and corruption.” 10 years on what we have is a blatant lack of accountability shown by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; the Assembly in suspension and thus deadlocked; sectarian ‘sharing out’ between DUP and Sinn Fein interests rather than genuine power-sharing as the main characteristic of the latter years of the Executive; and numerous examples of corruption, particularly on the DUP side of the house. It was little wonder that the Executive was so unloved by the people of the North at the end: at one meeting in West Belfast of broad nationalist opinion a year ago Sinn Fein could find only two people out of a crowd of over 150 to support them going back into that Executive.
Maybe the whole experiment was doomed once the reactionaries of the DUP became involved. The governments had decided to turn their backs on the middle ground sometime in the early 2000s, principally in order to get Sinn Fein and the IRA on board. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 this huge gamble appeared to have paid off. But as in Lebanon and other places where erstwhile bitter enemies go into government together, history has shown that it rarely lasts long. And the distinct impression now is that few people outside the two governments really want the North’s institutions to be restored. Certainly nobody in the British or Irish political establishments is prepared for the ferocious horse trading and painfully negotiated compromises that this will once again require.
The moral and political core of the Good Friday Agreement as an instrument for peace and reconciliation has been hollowed out. Nobody seems ready for the extremely hard graft needed to make a reconciled Northern Ireland work as the essential pre-requisite to what might happen next (in some medium-term future), whether it is a strengthening of the union with Britain (highly unlikely) or a move towards some kind of agreed Ireland. We are back again to the brutal binary choices that have blighted the North for the past century.
My personal hope (unrealistic as it may be) is that the non-unionist and non-nationalist ‘others’ whom the Belfast researcher Paul Nolan recently identified as by far the fastest growing social group in the region, might keep growing until they offer a significant centrist/leftist alternative in Northern society and politics. Bring them all on: atheists and agnostics, Alliance supporters, greens and socialists and People before Profit, foreign immigrants, hippies and gays and transgender people, sensible women of all persuasions, the alienated and marginalised and disabled and ‘plague on both your houses’ people. Let Northern Ireland be taken over by oddballs and weirdos of every stripe. Nothing they could propose could be as stultifying and perilous as the drift towards the Border Poll that Sinn Fein are constantly demanding. For I believe that a 50% plus one vote for a (dis)united Ireland in such a poll will be just the thing to re-ignite the the ancient, bloody conflict.
ENDOTE: I highly recommend Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times of 20th October on possible consequences of a worst case scenario after Brexit. Some of it is fanciful, some of is not. Be warned: we are entering dangerous times.
¹ The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: a Model for Export?