Monday 22 April 2019

John Downing: 'Bright dawn of hope darkens under looming Brexit cloud'

Friendly terms: Prince Charles visits Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland yesterday; Queen
Elizabeth visited the State in 2011. Photo: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
Friendly terms: Prince Charles visits Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland yesterday; Queen Elizabeth visited the State in 2011. Photo: Chris Jackson/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

For a blissful time, it looked like a new Irish dawn had broken, not just definitively ending 30 years of murder and fear, but moving people on to a new time of peaceful co-operation, with all fear banished.

The Belfast Agreement, unveiled on the best Good Friday in Ireland for many a long day, was an awesome achievement and delightfully ambitious in its scale.

Precisely 20 years ago today, the deal pointed up huge opportunities, not just for the people of Northern Ireland, but for all of the Irish people and for the people on the adjoining island of Britain.

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In a first since December 1918, voters on the entire island endorsed by an all-Ireland vote of 85pc for and 15pc against. It also has the status of an international treaty between Ireland and the UK.

The Good Friday Agreement was given huge support from the USA, whose heaven-sent envoy Senator George Mitchell played a strong role in delivering it. The EU's support was quieter, but more enduring and steadfast with €1.5bn in peace grants over the years 1995-2020, topping up already generous Brussels regional and social fund allocations to the North generally.

More significantly, the EU's border-free single market, which began in 1992, played a huge role in effacing the Border. Once the violence stopped from 1994 onwards it became invisible.

It is sadly ironic that the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement coincides with a big Brexit leaders' summit. EU membership by all of Ireland, and Britain, was interwoven into the agreement.

Northern Ireland is the part of the UK most distinctly affected by Brexit. A hard Border with the Republic has been a constant concern, with customs controls probable and possible immigration checks.

No matter that in June 2016 the majority of the North's voters opted to remain in the EU. But that has no constitutional significance and the UK Supreme Court has ruled the North's Stormont Assembly does not have to agree Brexit terms. The EU-UK divorce is a foreign policy issue reserved for the London government.

More worryingly, Brexit raises the prospect of the required deletion of references to the EU within the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It is the all-island aspects of the agreement which most embed the EU.

But, as Dublin continually points out and the EU leaders acknowledge, the agreement's international treaty status and its endorsement in referendums north and south offer legal and political protection.

In fairness to embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May, she has worked with the Irish Government to fashion some form of special status for the North. Mrs May did agree the "Border backstop" as a fall-back, keeping the North inside the EU customs union and close to the single market product standards.

She later overcame the EU's reluctance to extend this arrangement to the entirety of the UK. But, as we know, she has failed to sell either idea to her parliament and the interminable melodrama continues with an expected Brexit extension likely today, and continuing Conservative-Labour talks in London trying to find a way forward.

The political sensitivities of Brexit in the North are considerable - and the potential for a return to violence from a return of Border controls still looms.

This brings us to the real tragedy of the Good Friday deal: the failure of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin to resolve a two-year-old row, and Sinn Féin's additional failure to get over their sterile abstentionist policy on Westminster, are a betrayal of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent associated deals.

The pair have since January 2017 failed to work the power-sharing apparatus which helped them to entrench their political primacy in their respective communities.

The Irish people deserve much better 20 years on.

Irish Independent

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