Sunday, 1 July 2018

With friends like these

I spent my childhood watching reports from Northern Ireland about bombings, punishment beating and prisoners on hunger strike. Most nights the BBC news would have something about some latest horror. The people living in Northern Ireland suffered more than anyone else. It didn’t matter who you were. There was the daily possibility of being killed or maimed by someone who wanted to solve a political issue using violence.

I remember that there was some fear that the conflict might spread to Scotland. After all quite a large number of people in various parts of Scotland sympathised with the aims of the IRA. But for the most part we observed from far away.

Every now and again we discovered that the IRA had spread to Guildford or Brighton or Manchester, but we never had the day to day fear that people must have felt in Belfast.

I remember in the end becoming rather immune to the whole thing. I took it for granted that these things would happen every now and again. I barely paid attention. A routine developed. Politicians would condemn using a set formula of words and then we all just waited for the next bombing. Even in Northern Ireland the chances of being killed or wounded were small. In other parts of the UK they were very small indeed. The IRA were like a disease that was hard to catch, but impossible to cure. There wasn’t any point worrying about them.

And then it ended. Who won?

I’d like to think Northern Ireland won. The situation isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was. Northern Ireland rarely appears on the BBC news anymore and if it does, the story, for the most part, is the same sort of story that might be told in any other part of the UK. One or other of the Northern Irish political parties is arguing about something. There has been some particularly bad weather or there has been some sort of accident. Sometimes there is even good news.  

We made peace. It’s not perfect, but it has more or less lasted since 1997. The thing with peace that is always tricky is that you have to make it with your enemy. There is no point trying to make it with anyone else. But this, of course, meant that British politicians didn’t quite mean what they said when they stated so often that they would never negotiate with terrorists. We did negotiate with them, then we set them free and then we allowed them to become elected politicians. We also had to make concessions. The IRA gave up their campaign of violence. The British in return gave them the Belfast Agreement (1998) commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement. It was right that we did so, but let’s not pretend. It was the reward that the IRA got for their decades of bombing. The British signed the agreement so that this bombing would stop for ever.

There is therefore something very dubious about using this agreement years later to try to gain a political advantage. But suddenly ever since the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 I kept hearing various people going on about the Good Friday Agreement. The phrase had almost dropped from my memory. What on earth had that to do with Brexit?

Over time it became clear. The EU and the Irish Government wanted to use the Belfast Agreement as a way to put pressure on the British Government. This immediately struck me as quite outrageous. How dare they use a peace treaty that we signed so that the UK could avoid terrorist attacks to gain an advantage in the Brexit negotiations? Were these to be the fruits of the long IRA bombing campaign? Did the Republic of Ireland really want to inch closer to a united Ireland because Britain naturally didn’t want any more of our people to be killed by Irish terrorists? I thought this stank morally. But then far too many of those who wanted a united Ireland were always willing to sympathise with the aims of the IRA even if they sometime tut tutted at their methods.

I kept hearing from Remain supporters in the UK and from people in the Republic of Ireland that the Belfast Agreement forbade there being a hard border in Ireland and that it meant that it limited the UK’s room for manoeuvre in leaving the EU. This kept being repeated so often that it became a sort of orthodoxy. It’s also complete and utter nonsense.

I have never read so much interpretation about a document that demonstrates so ably that the interpreters have never in fact read it.

The Belfast Agreement is quite an easy read, though it is rather dull. It can be found here.

What is it about?

Firstly it states that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland accept that the status of Northern Ireland must be determined democratically. The people who will determine that future are those living in Northern Ireland. So if Northern Ireland were ever to unite with the Republic this could only happen after a vote.

There is next a section on setting up an assembly in Northern Ireland, then a section on setting up a North/South Ministerial Council and also a section on setting up a British Irish Council. There is quite a lot about human rights, cross border cooperation, reconciliation, decommissioning and prisoners but not once is there any mention about border controls. The actual border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or its status in fact is not mentioned at all.

Even in the section dealing with “Economic, social and cultural issues” there is not a thing about trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is no mention of customs, or duties. In fact none of the things that have been debated endlessly about the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland are anywhere mentioned in the Belfast Agreement.

The only limit to the UK’s sovereignty with regard to Northern Ireland is that we have promised to allow the Northern Irish people to decide if they wish to stay in the UK or join the Republic. Until that point we would be free to build a wall and dig a moat. The Republic of Ireland has no more right to demand that the border be kept open than any other nation state has that right.

The UK knows that most people in Northern Ireland want an open border. It is convenient and it is far better than neighbouring countries have friendly relations and open borders. For this reason we have promised to keep the border open.

But the Belfast Agreement in no way limits Brexit. It in no way changes the fact that the border in Ireland is an international border. If as a consequence of its EU membership the Republic of Ireland finds it impossible to remain in the Common Travel Area or if it finds itself forced to collect tariffs and regulate the movement of people, then that is a problem for the Republic not for us.  It could be resolved by deciding to leave the EU also.  But that is an issue for the Republic. It is not the UK’s business.

There is nothing in the Belfast Agreement to prevent friendly relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland continuing after Brexit. The various councils and cross border cooperation would continue even if the border were manned. After all prior to Schengen almost everywhere in the EU had a manned borders. Owing to the crisis over migration there are quite a few manned borders springing up again in the EU. But these countries still cooperate and are friendly and trade freely with each other.

It becomes ever more obvious that the EU and the Irish Republic are attempting to use Brexit to bring about a united Ireland. This is why they continually wish to treat Northern Ireland differently from the other parts of the UK and why they want a border to run through the Irish Sea. So what the IRA couldn’t achieve by bombs the EU and the Irish Republic wish to achieve by means of issues they pretend are contained in the Belfast Agreement. Meanwhile the Remainers cheer them on. With friends like these who needs terrorists?


  1. The chief virtue of the Good Friday Agreement was that, while it left various seemingly intractable issues unresolved, it secured an (unenthusiastic, admittedly) acceptance of the status quo. Because of Brexit, exacerbated by the vagaries of its proponents, it is far from clear what the status quonwill be in a year's time. e

  2. December's Joint Report which re-emphasised the UK's commitment to protecting North-South cooperation and repeated its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements, the report said, must be compatible with these overarching requirements.

    At the time, it was intended that the UK should achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship, details of which it has been pressed to provide for some time. In the event that this was not possible, the idea was then that the UK should propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.

    It was only in the absence of agreed solutions – arising from one or the other of these activities – that the UK agreed "to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 (Good Friday) Agreement".

    As it turns out, the UK has not produced any formal proposals and has shown no signs of delivering anything which looks even close to a solution that the EU would be prepared to agree. And it is in the precise context that the Commission has decided to produce its draft which, it says, "translates" the Joint Report and Joint Technical note into a legal text".

    What this amounts to is an eight-page protocol (which includes nearly two pages of recital), is what is being called a "backstop" option. And this small addition has the potential to blow the Brexit negotiations apart for, without agreement on this, there will be no transition.

    In the protocol, Northern Ireland continues to be part of a functioning Single Market, joining a "common regulatory area" with the rest of the Union, thereby constituting "an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected".

  3. The main foreign policy goal for the RoI, reflecting public opinion there, is peace in the North. ("It's our *only* foreign policy aim", as I once overheard an Irish diplomat say.) That is why no Irish Government will ever seek annexation, and why the Irish electorate voted to remove contentious provisions from the Constitution.

  4. The Good Friday Agreement provided two things: a respite for the people; and an opportunity for the British Government.

  5. Hundreds of lives have been saved. People are able to undertake all kinds of ordinary activities without fear of death, injury, or captivity. Any decent person will tremble at the thought that this could be endangered.

  6. The British Government exercises sovereign power there. It and the unionist parties (as opposed to provincial sectarian parties) have the ability to bring the territory within the scope of United Kingdom politics. This has not happened.

  7. The Conservative Party has only recently bothered to contest elections there. (The long-defunct tactical alliance with the UP was always uneasy: Ulstermen are *not* natural Tories.) The LibDems do not submit their policies to the electorate there, and the Labour Party had engaged in long and costly litigation to avoid doing so. e

  8. Rather than solving this problem, British Governments including all three unionist parties have installed and maintained a system guaranteed to exacerbate confessional allegiance and sectarian division. Despite this, the GFA had won a widespread if unenthusiastic acceptance of the status quo amongst the population as a whole. That acceptance is now crumbling. *Nobody* knows what will happen next.

  9. The Conservative Party's ineptitude in all this has been breathtakingly frighten

    1. ... frightening. When they popped over to discuss the arrangements for planting the magic money tree, they seemed under the impression that the DUP would negotiate on a *Sunday*.

  10. As Effie rightly says, nothing in the GFA binds the UK to remain in the EU. Neverthless, since EU membership by both RoI and UK is a premise of the GFA, if the UK intends to remove a premise then logic (not to mention decency) requires it to substitute a premise that will have like effect.
    The Government of the RoI is already laying detailed contingency plans in the case the UK fails to come up with any coherent proposals. The Government of the UK, on the other hand, is still indulging in an internal squabble a longue haleine. This is all as worrying as it could be.

    1. Thing is the UK government and likely everyone in the UK really does not care about Ireland in the slightest.

  11. Commentators in the RoI have noted that the hard-border-with-ditch solution advocated by some of the extreme Brexiteers would be the economic equivalent of Mutual Assured Destruction during the Cold War. That is why the authorities there are doing everything they can to avoid this. However, should it happen, there can be no doubt that the North will suffer Ben worse than the South.

  12. The article makes some pertinent points, but falls down spectacularly by only citing Republican violence, totally neglecting the fact 40% of the killings committed during the Troubles were by the British side, some of whom are also walking the streets today.

    As it stands, demographics and the changing electoral map of NI indicate the direction of travel is, slowly but surely, heading inexorably towards a United Ireland. That throws up challenges on both sides of the Scottish debate, however, because on one hand what was formerly (outside the SE establishment) the most fanatically "British" part of the UK losing its status would be a blow to the Unionists, it would free up the £10BN or so annual handouts the failed state gets, which could conceivably be redistributed to Wales, NE England and Scotland, which would counter some grievances of SNP, Plaid Cymru, or advocates of Northern Powerhouse, etc.