Thursday 13 December 2018

Dearbhail McDonald analysis: Spectre of worst possible scenario now looms large

George Mitchell with Bertie Ahern in 2008. Photo: Martin Nolan
George Mitchell with Bertie Ahern in 2008. Photo: Martin Nolan
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

WHEN they gather in Belfast in a few weeks' time, what will they say?

George Mitchell, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Monica McWilliams, Seamus Mallon and Peter Robinson are among those due to attend the 'Building Peace' conference at Queen's University, one of many events to commemorate and celebrate the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA).

There is much to celebrate, including a lasting if delicate peace for two decades now.

And yet, as the convulsions surrounding the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the UK has shown - with hysterical allegations that the EU is trying to "annex" Northern Ireland - so much is at stake.

The architects of the GFA deserve huge credit for engaging in an astounding act of scenario planning.

But for all its ingenuity, the one scenario the agreement did not contemplate was Brexit. Like the IRA, the 'Irish Question' never really went away. But the GFA at least sought to place the constitutional destiny of the divided communities in Northern Ireland in their hands. Now the Irish Question has been reopened, with British Prime Minister Theresa May claiming that the European Commission's text - which proposes a common regulatory area between the EU and Northern Ireland - threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK.

"No UK prime minster could ever agree to it," Mrs May told the House of Commons, despite agreeing to such a backstop of regulatory alignment last December in the event of a no-deal scenario. It's a hot mess and one that poses huge risks for Ireland, whose own red line is that other great achievement of the GFA - the Border, or a lack of one.

This, the free movement of people, goods and services - along with power-sharing - is the beating heart of the agreement. And how Ireland and Europe navigate Brexit's red lines will be vital for the entire island of Ireland.

Read More: 'No UK prime minister could agree to this deal'

One thing is for sure: devolution, with the DUP holding the balance of power at Westminster, is unthinkable at present.

What is deeply frustrating is the fact that Mrs May and her deeply divided Cabinet, have - while rubbishing every effort to resolve the issue of the Border - never offered any real or meaningful solution to it, thereby undermining the constitutional integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.

The policy shift by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who this week said there should be a customs union, was significant and a way, arguably, for Britain to save face. For Ireland, the tough stance adopted by the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, on the Border is a double-edged sword.

While Europe's support is critical, if the transition deal falls on the issue of the Irish Question, our relationship with Britain will inevitably deteriorate. This will leave us with a hard Brexit and a hard Border - and the spectre of a return of violence - the worst scenario of all.

Irish Independent

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