Northern Irish Politics Are Broken

The Good Friday Agreement is crumbling, and an Irish backstop may not be enough to save it.

By Jonathan Gorvett, a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
A man walks past a mural marking unionist territory in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on May 4, 2016.
A man walks past a mural marking unionist territory in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on May 4, 2016. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—It has been 21 years since British, Irish, and Northern Irish leaders came together under the mediating gaze of U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to sign the Good Friday peace agreement. Together, they brought an end to three decades of violence in this fractured land.

In that conflict, known as the Troubles, over 3,500 people were killed as Irish nationalist and pro-British unionist paramilitaries fought each other, the Northern Irish police, and the British Army. The Good Friday Agreement, signed on that Christian holiday back in April 1998, has been hailed ever since as a triumph of diplomacy and peacemaking.

Yet now, there is growing alarm that Good Friday is under threat—and not so much from bombs and bullets, but from the United Kingdom’s June 2016 decision to leave the European Union—otherwise known as Brexit. “We’re talking about an existential threat,” said Katy Hayward, a senior fellow with the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, in early August. “Brexit forms a direct challenge to the cooperation and mutual trust fundamental to the Good Friday Agreement.”

The U.K.’s rupture with Europe also comes at a time when a highly contentious mix of dysfunctional political structures and unresolved grievances is already making things more tense in Northern Ireland—producing a potentially fatal cocktail for the two-decade-old peace agreement.

The repercussions stretch far beyond Northern Ireland, as well, including to the neighboring Republic of Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom, and even the United States, a co-guarantor of the accord.

Raising the alarm in Washington have been Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D), the bipartisan Friends of Ireland congressional caucus, and the Ad Hoc Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement, which was set up back in February and is made up of 40 well-known Irish American politicians and business leaders.

In July, Pelosi, who is eager for the Democrats to take the lead on the fate of the Good Friday Agreement, warned, “There should be no return to a hard border on the island,” saying that she would support a congressional block on any future trade deal between the United Kingdom and United States if such a thing came about.

A hard border, which would stop the free flow of people and goods between EU member Ireland and non-EU member Northern Ireland, would be highly unpopular with people on both sides of the frontier. There is also a strong possibility that it could lead to a jump in violence as dissident republican groups target border posts for attack. “People here see such attacks as a very serious and viable prospect,” Siobhan Fenton, a Belfast-based Northern Irish journalist and the author of the book The Good Friday Agreement, pointed out in early August. “Chief police officers have said that it is very likely there will be attacks on physical infrastructure,” she said, “as well as against the contractors trying to construct it.”

Smuggling has been a problem ever since the border went up in the early 1920s.

Peter Sheridan, a former senior police officer in Northern Ireland and now leader of cross-border charity, Co-operation Ireland, warned that Brexit could see a jump in another, related issue: smuggling. When we spoke this summer, he said that “only fuel, alcohol, and tobacco are not in price alignment, north and south.” After Brexit, though, “there could be thousands of price differentials. This would create opportunities for a major black market, with organized crime—and terrorist groups—making the profits.”

Smuggling has been a problem ever since the border went up in the early 1920s. And during the Troubles, it was also a major way in which paramilitary groups funded their operations. As Sheridan put it, “even during the conflict, when there were thousands of British troops and Northern Irish police patrolling the border, thousands of pounds of smuggling went on, and the profits from this were used to fuel the conflict—this is what bought the guns and explosives.”

The so-called Irish backstop negotiated between the EU and the previous British government led by Prime Minister Theresa May might help avoid this issue. A backstop would keep the U.K. in the EU’s customs union until a future trade deal is fully worked out, while Northern Ireland would also be subject to a range of additional EU trading rules and regulations that would help keep it in alignment with the rest of the union.

The backstop would therefore avoid the institution of a hard border—customs and passport controls—between Northern Ireland and the republic. Such a border would be highly controversial, with the former Northern Irish police chief constable Hugh Orde warning earlier this year that it would have “huge consequences in terms of security” and that police and customs officers “would become a target.”

Nonetheless, the backstop has proved unacceptable to the main Northern Ireland unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and to the current British government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The DUP fears that the different customs regime for Northern Ireland would separate the province from the rest of the United Kingdom, while the U.K. government fears that the backstop would keep the United Kingdom in the EU customs union indefinitely, as it currently has no time limit.

At the same time, “fundamental to Good Friday is the idea that sovereignty is compatible with a sharing of authority,” Hayward argued. Indeed, the agreement gave both the republic and the U.K. a recognized stake in Northern Ireland and brought both Irish-identifying nationalist and British-identifying unionist parties into the running of a devolved, power-sharing local parliament: the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“With Brexit, however, the two governments are on opposite sides,” Hayward said, “with differences between them likely to increase over time.” The fear is that an exit will also push nationalists and unionists further apart as Irish and British interests begin to diverge, reversing the process underway since Good Friday in 1998.

As Northern Ireland’s political stakeholders drift apart, Brexit will also put “a border between identities,” Sheridan added. Good Friday allowed for people in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish, European, or all of the above. That helped defuse often violent rival nationalisms, softening differences and creating a wide stretch of common ground. Brexit, however, underscores differences in national identity, with increasingly real implications as the U.K. moves further away from Europe and Ireland.

Although Brexit may take away Northern Ireland’s EU identity, a majority of people in the province voted to remain in the 2016 referendum. The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein has argued that this makes the change illegal. After all, the Good Friday Agreement forbids changes of Northern Ireland’s status without consent, although this is in reference to any attempt to change Northern Ireland from being part of the U.K. to being part of a united Ireland.

Nonetheless, moving from being a part of the EU to being outside it has rankled both Irish nationalists and pro-Remain unionists. Indeed, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told supporters in Belfast in July that Britain taking Northern Ireland out of the EU would be “against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland” and “takes away their European citizenship and undermines the Good Friday Agreement.”

At the same time, the province’s largest (and pro-Brexit) unionist grouping, the DUP, has advanced the “change of status” argument too. But DUP has used it to attack any differentiation in customs and trade regulations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. that might be made in order to avoid a hard border. In July, DUP leader Arlene Foster described a backstop along these lines as driving “a coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement.

Foster’s comments also illustrate the major gulf between Northern Ireland’s largest parties: the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Fein. These are currently the two largest parties representing the two groups—unionist and nationalist—that, under the Good Friday Agreement, were supposed to share power in the region’s devolved parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Since 1998, the Assembly has frequently collapsed. It hasn’t met since January 2017, after it broke down over a corruption scandal implicating many senior politicians and civil servants, mainly of the DUP. Since then, Sinn Fein and the DUP have been unable to come to an agreement on how to reopen the Assembly, leaving Northern Ireland with no governmental voice lobbying for its interests throughout the Brexit debate.

The province has been run since 2017 by the civil service, which can only continue to implement existing policies, not institute any new ones. So, for example, the administration has been unable to launch any new infrastructure repair programs, new school programs, or other public services programs for years. “With all this focus on Brexit, few people outside Northern Ireland realize how extreme it is to have no government for two and a half years,” Fenton said. “This assembly is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement.”

One concern now is that, “in the chaos of Brexit, the U.K. government will have to intervene and impose direct rule,” Fenton said. After all, there would be no local government able to take action in the event of a breakdown in cross-border trade, major job losses in Northern Irish businesses, or any rise in protests—peaceful or otherwise—triggered by Brexit.

If the British government does step in, it would bring to an end Good Friday’s power-sharing, devolved system, causing great alarm to the nationalist community, much of which does not see the British government as having its best interests at heart. This is particularly so given that the sitting U.K. Conservative Party government relies on the support of the DUP for its parliamentary majority.

Nationalist distrust of British institutions was also recognized in the Good Friday Agreement, which saw Europe as a way to address their concerns. In particular, the agreement made the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated European Court of Human Rights into higher legal authorities than domestic law in Northern Ireland.

The change in authority is particularly important when it comes to cold cases dating back to the Troubles—many of which are still awaiting a hearing. Indeed, August marks 50 years since the first child was killed in the violence, with the family of 9-year-old Patrick Rooney—allegedly shot dead by a police bullet in Belfast in 1969—still awaiting a day in court.

A number of other highly contentious trials and inquests are also coming up, including the trial of a British soldier accused of two murders during the infamous 1972 massacre in Derry-Londonderry, known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“People believe a lot of murders carried out during that time were not investigated properly,” Fenton said. “Some killings were allegedly carried out by British soldiers, too, so it’s important that the ECHR is there, as it’s more likely to be seen as impartial.” Yet in the view of many in the U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party, Brexit also means the U.K.’s departure from the ECHR and thus the European Court of Human Rights. Supporters of such a move include Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior advisor and the key strategist of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. Other well-known critics of the ECHR include the current British interior minister, Priti Patel.

If the trials never take place, the sense of grievance and lack of closure for the families of victims will linger. But if national authorities deliver verdicts that are unacceptable to nationalist plaintiffs, there would be no higher court for them to appeal to—leaving a sense that justice still had not been done.

Over 20 years on, then, the Good Friday Agreement faces a wide range of challenges—with the violent past it brought to an end still haunting many. In this fragile post-conflict society, Brexit drives a wedge between communities that are still trying to overcome a legacy of division and mistrust. The agreement’s focus on power-sharing, open borders, and chosen identities now stands in sharp contrast to Brexit’s demand for “taking back control.” Although the resurrection in Northern Ireland that followed Good Friday may not be over, it is clearly now under greater threat than ever.

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.