Quis coniunget?: Brexit, Irish Reunification, and You

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by Molly McLaughlin ’23

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, signifying the beginning of the end of three decades of violent conflict between Irish Catholics and English Protestants. In the twenty-two years since, the Good Friday Agreement has proven to be largely successful, vastly diminishing sectarian violence and creating a Northern Ireland that is considerably safer than it was in the latter half of the 20th century. Although things have changed, peace in the region can be fragile, and any threats made to the Good Friday Agreement could cause a return to the violence of the past. Unfortunately, this has become a possibility due to a new Brexit bill announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in September.

To fully explain the need for the Good Friday Agreement, we must look back over one hundred years in Ireland’s history to 1916. On Easter Monday of that year, Irish nationalists, who had been struggling against Britain’s colonial rule for centuries, staged the Easter Rising, a six-day long rebellion during which nationalists seized several British-run buildings in Dublin.

Five years later, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1919 established the Irish Free State: independent, yet still a dominion of the British throne, and allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of it, thus establishing the Partition of Ireland in 1921. Under Partition, the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain in the United Kingdom, while the remaining twenty-six counties would comprise the Irish Free State, followed by the Republic of Ireland after gaining independence in 1937.

By the late 1960s, increasing mistreatment of the Catholic and nationalist minority by the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland was expressed both politically, through rampant gerrymandering, employment discrimination, and voter disenfranchisement, making it almost impossible for Catholics to gain representation in Parliament, and physically, through violence. For the next three decades, with the addition of paramilitary groups, primarily the nationalist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Northern Irish Conflict, also known as the Troubles, created a region inflicted by continuous sectarian violence.

During the Troubles, British watchtowers were established at various locations along the border, and the border was a hotspot for bombings. In 2007, the last of these watchtowers was removed and all British troops were withdrawn from Northern Irish cities after 38 years stationed there– the longest military deployment in British history. The 2007 military withdrawal was a poignant moment in the peace progress of Northern Ireland, demonstrating success in upholding the Good Friday Agreement. 

Once the IRA called a ceasefire in 1994, things began to change in Northern Ireland. In the mid-nineties, peace talks began between the UK and Ireland, and in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was settled. So, what does the Good Friday Agreement do? Put simply, it is a compromise; nationalists conceded that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom, while unionists conceded to the end of Direct Rule and the possibility of a United Ireland. With the Brexit deadline approaching this fall, the question of a United Ireland has resurfaced, perhaps more now than ever.

Today, the GFA is treated as international law between Ireland and the UK, setting the standards for relations between the two and providing guidelines for future agreements. The GFA also contains a provision calling for a referendum on Irish Unity, under the following conditions:

  • The vote must be among the people of the island of Ireland only.
  • Both the Irish and British governments must respect the outcome of the vote and work toward implementing the decision regardless of its result.
  • Residents of Northern Ireland may maintain their citizenship in the UK, Ireland, or both, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

The governments of Ireland and the UK have had four years to discuss Brexit arrangements, so what have they come up with? When 55 percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum, the Northern Ireland Protocol was added as an amendment to the Brexit deal in 2019 in order to maintain peace along the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Additionally, a hard border like that of the Troubles was prohibited by the Good Friday Agreement, which calls for demilitarization in Northern Ireland, particularly at the border. 

In the Northern Ireland Protocol, Northern Ireland would continue to abide by EU customs rules but would remain in the UK customs territory, thus avoiding the issue of the hard border. However, on September 6th, just short of a month away from the deadline for the UK’s deal with the EU, Johnson announced a bill reversing the Northern Ireland protocol. Because of this, Northern Ireland would have to adhere to UK customs and trade rules, while Ireland remains as part of the EU. The reversal of the Northern Ireland Protocol is an appalling breach of the Good Friday Agreement, as it would mean the return of the hard border. Mr. Johnson’s bill spells trouble for the stability of the Irish island as a whole– especially as Northern Ireland continues to fall behind the Republic economically. 

Any threats made to the Good Friday Agreement could cause a return to the violence of the past.

Today, most borderlines between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are unmarked– driving from one country to the other, it would be hard to tell you had crossed a border. While the hard border instituted as a result of Prime Minister Johnson’s new trade bill would not be militarized to the extent of the hard border of the Troubles, it would be a complete betrayal of the hard-won peace at the border. 

In a poll from February, 57 percent of voters in the Republic of Ireland responded that the Unity Referendum stipulated in the GFA should be held in the next five years, while 40 percent responded that it should not. A 2018 poll broke down the vote in Northern Ireland by religion, with about 90 percent of Catholic respondents saying they would vote to reunite with the Republic of Ireland and almost 90 percent of Protestant respondents said they would vote to remain part of the UK. Evidently, violence may have diminished with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but the sectarianism did not. To further complicate the issue, it is projected that Catholics will outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 2021 census. Of course, while not all Catholics are nationalists and not all Protestants are unionists, the polling is indicative that opinions have remained the same, and this has only been exacerbated by Brexit. 

What role does the US play in all of this? The Good Friday Agreement was decided under President Bill Clinton’s administration, and the former president was greatly involved in seeing through the Northern Irish peace process as a whole. Perhaps one of the most significant moments of this process was the two days Gerry Adams, then-president of Sinn Fein, spent in the USA after being granted a Visa by President Clinton. Adams had been prohibited from speaking on British television and radio, causing little information to be available from the nationalist perspective. During his stay in the US, Adams took as many opportunities to speak as he could, inspiring both the American public and politicians to support the Irish cause.

This was not an easy decision for President Clinton to make– he and his security team were advised by the UK that Sinn Fein was dangerous, but Clinton was eventually convinced by Irish-American Congressional Democrats to grant Adams the Visa. Democrats have had a strong history of supporting Ireland in its struggle against British rule, and this is no different today. Following the news of Johnson’s failure to honor the Good Friday Agreement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the GFA “the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and an inspiration for the whole world” and asserted that “there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress” if the GFA is undermined.

This extends itself to the US presidential election this year–President Trump has historically stood by Prime Minister Johnson’s decisions, including the hard Brexit deal. Had President Trump won reelection in November, likely unwilling to give up such a crucial trade partner as the UK, he would almost certainly have sided against upholding the Good Friday Agreement. US involvement in the completion of Johnson’s new bill, as well as the bill itself, has the potential to reignite the violence the GFA helped to extinguish, open up the wound of the Troubles, and completely delegitimize the US’s role as a guarantor of the Agreement. The only long-term solution to the border question is the reunification of the island of Ireland, but if the protection of the border under the Good Friday Agreement is to be ignored and betrayed, who’s to say the provision on a unity referendum won’t be next?

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has been an outspoken supporter of the Good Friday Agreement for decades and has vowed to protect it as President, recently tweeting that “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.” Biden will be the country’s second Irish Catholic President, the first, of course, being John F. Kennedy. In phone conversations with Johnson and Taioseach Micheál Martin in the days after the election (traditional for president-elects as part of the transition process), Biden re-affirmed the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. The future of the Agreement, then, rests in large part on how President-elect Biden manages the United States’ “special relationship” with the UK over the months and years to come. 

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