Andrew McCormick, former Director General of International Relations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office (2018-2021), looks at what it will take to protect the compromises agreed in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement from the strains imposed by Brexit.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is an accommodation between irreconcilable traditions on how to govern a region where there is not, and will not be, agreement on its present or future status. The whole point of the complex set of institutions created by the Agreement was to provide a legitimate form of administration acceptable to as many as possible.
A very significant achievement of the Agreement was to accommodate conflicting aspirations and identities. For those who regarded (and regard) the existence of Northern Ireland as inherently illegitimate, it required acquiescence in it, based on the principle of consent, while making room for a strong expression of Irish identity, reflecting the fact that a very substantial minority of people in Northern Ireland wanted (and want) eventual reunification.
For unionists who strongly resisted the idea that anyone could legitimately question Northern Ireland’s status as part of United Kingdom, the Agreement required (and requires) recognising that the region is unique, and that its status is not, and cannot be, identical to other parts of the UK.
For both sides, it means recognising that the other side has the right to decide for itself what it regards as important or not important in relation to its expression of identity, and that the form and operation of government has to be demonstrably legitimate for all people – recognising that the way Northern Ireland was governed before 1972 was not.
The key elements of the Agreement – consent, power-sharing, parity of esteem, equality, north-south institutions and the reinforcement of the totality of relationships within ‘these islands’ – were and remain vital.
The words used by the signatories in 1998 to express their commitment, notably in Article 1.5 of the Agreement, are worth remembering. They committed to ‘…strive in every practical way towards reconciliation…’ and to ‘…ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements [created by the Agreement]’.
An essential step on the journey was the statement by the British government in November 1990 that it had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’, and that its constitutional future was solely a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. Aspects of the UK government’s approach to Brexit risked contradicting that point.
Brexit has put the Agreement under unprecedented pressure. The current problems stem from the British government’s unwillingness to face up to the consequences of Brexit for the 1998 Agreement, and by its subsequent attempts – through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – to walk away from the Protocol it had negotiated with the EU to manage those consequences.
It follows that the first step is for the government to acknowledge its part in causing problems for the Agreement by its misrepresentation of the Protocol. Through the Windsor Framework the government has implicitly acknowledged that it needs to manage the impacts of Brexit, not deny them. It needs to admit that explicitly.
Similarly, unionist leaders need to recognise and be prepared to say that their ideal position is not available, and that nothing better than the Windsor Framework can be negotiated. They should acknowledge that while there are now border controls East-West, Brexit has also deepened the border between North and South, for example because of the significant impact of Brexit on the services sector of the economy, on which there is no difference between NI and GB.
For their part, nationalists and the Irish government must respectfully acknowledge the legitimate anxieties even of moderate unionism about the risks Brexit creates to their sense of British identity.
As in 1998, it is now essential that, while agreeing to differ, leaders of unionism and nationalism should exhort their constituencies to re-dedicate themselves to the Agreement, embrace the accommodation and make it work, rather than looking back to a lost past or a remote future.
Unionists need to see that the unique arrangements established under the Agreement provide as firm and clear an expression and guarantee of the Union with the rest of the United Kingdom as is possible in a territory where over 40% do not identify with it. It is surely in their interests to make the institutions work as the only stable basis for governance. And the unique dual market access, which would disappear in a united Ireland, provides very significant economic benefits which could reinforce the Union.
And nationalists and republicans need to recognise that the evidence on opinion in NI in relation to Irish unity suggests that consent for change is at a minimum some way away, and hence that unity remains a long-term aspiration rather than an imminent prospect, and that, for now, the Agreement provides as strong an expression of their Irish identity as is possible.
Strong and courageous leaders need to communicate to their people that while they might not like aspects of the Agreement, that’s the way it is. Northern Ireland has to be shared. That means that no side gets everything its own way, and that both have to accept compromise and the only possible basis for government is that set out in the 1998 Agreement.
The growing numbers who shun identity-based politics suggest that a different set of rules may in time be possible, but there is still a long way to go, and hence it is still essential to accept institutions that provide checks and balances to protect the rights of minorities.
Brexit has stirred up the tensions arising from the two versions of the constitutional future that were accommodated in 1998. Therefore, it is essential for the two governments, and as many leaders as possible to renew the commitment in Article 1.5 of the Agreement to the unique accommodation achieved in 1998, to make the institutions of government as effective as possible, safeguard parity of esteem and fair treatment for all, and to promote prosperity and reconciliation.
By Andrew McCormick, former Director General of International Relations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office (2018-2021).