Report

Brexit Fallout Could ‘Collapse’ the Good Friday Agreement

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warns about the ongoing border disputes, but he stresses that violence is unlikely.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney after a meeting with the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator on Jan. 20, 2020. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images.

Ireland’s top diplomat warned that the lingering dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union over post-Brexit border arrangements could lead to the “collapse” of institutions around a two-decade-old Northern Irish peace agreement if the two sides cannot break the impasse. 

“The real threat here is the collapse of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which would be very, very problematic,” said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, referring to the 1998 peace deal that ended a decadeslong war over Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom.

“It means no government in Northern Ireland functioning as it should, it means damage to the east-west relationship between Dublin and London,” said Coveney, who spoke to reporters during a visit to Washington. Coveney emphasized that tensions over post-Brexit arrangements likely wouldn’t lead to a renewed surge in violence, however.

Ireland’s top diplomat warned that the lingering dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union over post-Brexit border arrangements could lead to the “collapse” of institutions around a two-decade-old Northern Irish peace agreement if the two sides cannot break the impasse. 

“The real threat here is the collapse of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which would be very, very problematic,” said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, referring to the 1998 peace deal that ended a decadeslong war over Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom.

“It means no government in Northern Ireland functioning as it should, it means damage to the east-west relationship between Dublin and London,” said Coveney, who spoke to reporters during a visit to Washington. Coveney emphasized that tensions over post-Brexit arrangements likely wouldn’t lead to a renewed surge in violence, however.

“It’s important not to talk up the possibility of violence. I think Ireland is in a very different space now to where it was two or three decades ago. I don’t think there’s likely to be wholesale violence in Northern Ireland,” he said. “Having said that, whether tensions around the protocol can result in the collapse of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, that is a very real threat.”

Coveney was visiting Washington after meetings in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Ireland, which holds the rotating chairmanship for the U.N. Security Council this month, has played an outsized diplomatic role in chairing high-level U.N. meetings on climate security and the Middle East. 

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union created a raft of legal and jurisdictional headaches for policymakers in Brussels and London as they tried to unspool decades of economic, trade, and legal integration. Ireland remains in the EU, while the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland (which voted against Brexit), does not. That has led to fierce debates about how the EU could effectively manage a “soft border” with Northern Ireland.  

Under the terms of the protocol agreed to after the United Kingdom left the EU, Northern Ireland will effectively remain part of the European Union’s single market when it comes to trade, following the bloc’s rules on agriculture and produce, with customs inspections instead taking place before goods reach Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. The deal was intended to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, which many feared could inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, where sectarian conflict raged for about three decades during the latter half of the 20th century.

The United States, which helped broker the so-called Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that effectively ended the era of violence, has warned that post-Brexit disputes could undercut two decades of peace in the region. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on a visit to London last week in which she met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, told a think tank audience that any threat to peace in Northern Ireland would make the prospect of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal “very unlikely.” U.S. President Joe Biden has made similar warnings since the campaign trail.   

The protocol came into effect at the beginning of January but has been waylaid by, of all things, the “sausage war.” 

The EU does not allow chilled meats to be shipped into the bloc, meaning that Northern Ireland could be deprived of its British bangers. A grace period was put in place, but the U.K. government has now said that it wants to reduce the amount of checks imposed on its products before they are shipped into the EU’s single market, prompting a standoff with Brussels.

Coveney said EU-U.K. talks over the matter are ongoing. “Where the discussion is at right now is the European Commission is looking at ways in which they can reduce what is seen as the burden of the protocol on Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland, while at the same time absolutely not compromising on the need to protect the integrity” of EU borders. 

Johnson also visited Washington this week, between meetings at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and discussed the matter with Biden. Biden warned Johnson not to let the standoff over trade imperil the peace in Northern Ireland that followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. “On the protocols, I feel very strongly about those,” Biden said. “We spent an enormous amount of time and effort in the United States. It was a major bipartisan effort made. And I—I would not at all like to see—nor, I might add, would many of my Republican colleagues like to see—a change in the Irish accords that—the end result having a closed border again.”

British leaders have suggested that Biden just doesn’t get it. Speaking to Britain’s Sky News on Wednesday, U.K. Environment Minister George Eustice said that Biden didn’t “fully appreciate” the nuances of the Northern Ireland protocol, noting that the arrangement was “very complicated.”

Coveney and others beg to differ. “Let’s just be clear, the understanding in Washington on what’s happened here is not in question. And anybody who questions it essentially is trying to create a distraction from the real discussions,” he said. 

Anne Anderson, who served as Ireland’s ambassador to the United States during the Obama administration, told Foreign Policy after the U.S. elections last year that Biden “knows these issues backward,” adding, “we don’t need to educate him in any way about the Good Friday Agreement and its importance to the north-south relationship on the island.”

FP’s Colm Quinn contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.