The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or to give it its proper title – The Belfast Agreement: An Agreement Reached at the Multi-Party Talks on Northern Ireland.
For those too busy to read it or those in government sadly too busy to read or understand it – it is a nothing less than an international peace treaty brokered by the governments of the UK, US and Ireland and the political parties in Northern Ireland. It was negotiated at considerable political risk to both the UK and Irish governments. The Irish government amended the Irish Constitution to give up claim to Northern Ireland and the UK government offered so-called “comfort letters” to known terrorists and agreed to an accelerated program of prisoner release. The US government under the Clinton administration skilfully manoeuvred Sinn Fein into a position whereby official recognition by the US gave them political capital and showed that a political process could result in lasting change – unlike a continuation of the Troubles.
As well as the high-profile political negotiations a small number of unsung and brave people talked to the terrorist organisations directly on behalf of the respective governments – these people cleared the path to talks and the eventual agreement. One person who appears to have been partly forgotten in this is Mo Mowlem, the Labour politician who served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Her direct and open manner went a long way in securing the trust of the different parties in Northern Ireland.
The GFA has mostly kept the peace in Northern Ireland for the last twenty years, ironically long enough for the current crop of politicians in Westminster to forget how bad things were before peace. However, twenty years is a blink of the eye compared to the political and religious turmoil that the island of Ireland has suffered for hundreds of years. That turmoil could easily and readily resurface.
The risk comes from the Brexit process.
The GFA allowed for the dismantling of the border security apparatus and the three hundred mile north/south border to almost disappear. It is almost as though Ireland become reunited physically while remaining two very distinct systems – both within the EU. It was a classic compromise, but it worked. People, goods & services crossed the border all day, every day and both sides of the border prospered in the peace.
A hard Brexit will inevitably bring back a border, contrary to the commitments in the GFA. Where there are two different trading areas with different tariffs – Ireland within the EU single market and Northern Ireland under WTO terms it is impossible to avoid customs checks.
There are no magic bullet technical fixes for this; if it were possible, a country like Switzerland would have already implemented it.
The other (and possibly) the real reason a border will be reintroduced is that the EU will likely insist that Dublin impose a border. All other parts of Europe with a land border with a third-party country outside the EU have border checks. The EU will not allow an open border in Ireland to be used to avoid tariffs and quotas with goods smuggled from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic and so into the EU. This is just not going to happen – even if the Irish government wanted to do it. There is a long history of smuggling across the north/south border. With differing tariffs on virtually all goods after a hard Brexit, there would be widespread smuggling and tariff & quota avoidance.
Even if Brexit can be resolved in some way, reintroducing the border makes it much more likely that the border will eventually be permanently removed under a united Ireland.
At the top of the second page of the GFA, it states the parties –
“…recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.”
If the current UK government and Westminster abandon the people of Northern Ireland (Protestants and Catholics) those people may seek a closer union with the Republic – it would remove the border and put Northern Ireland back in the EU.
If this were to happen, you would expect the EU to invest heavily in a united Ireland – after all, Germany would have much sympathy with the reunification process.
Brexit was supposed to be all milk and honey; it is now much more complicated and far-reaching than the public have been told. The Union is at stake. Growing nationalism in the form of Brexit has let the genie out of the bottle for the other parts of the UK – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.