The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is constructed on the principle of consent, including;
- Consent of the British Government that a part of its territory, Northern Ireland, will be subject to special arrangements, including those with the Irish Republic;
- Consent that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only occur if desired by a majority;
- Consent by the Nationalist community there to the present constitutional status, along with a mechanism to change that status, if a majority so desire; and
- Consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly to any alteration in the cross-border arrangements
All these interlacing sets of arrangements are delicately balanced and were arrived at after many years of painstaking discussion and compromises. The Agreement represented no single party or side’s ideal but there was enough consensus there to achieve a durable settlement on the basis of consent.
The hardline demands of the EU today, essentially driven by the Government in Dublin, are light years away from the approach which characterised that of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the late 1990s and made the Agreement possible. The Agreement was designed to usher in a new and constructive era of mature relations between the UK and Ireland. We were to become close partners over a whole series of areas.
The reaction of the authorities in Dublin to British efforts to negotiate a sensible and smooth Brexit has been the antithesis of the process that led to the GFA. Instead of the two Governments’ commitment to “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours “, there has been a stubborn resistance to accepting the UK decision to leave the EU. This has been alongside a strong alliance with implacable Remainers in London. This has made the Brexit process much more difficult and fed into the agenda of those in Brussels, and also Paris, who are determined to make an example of Britain for daring to leave their club. It is completely contrary to Ireland’s real national interest and the spirit of the GFA.
This hardline policy from Dublin is now endangering the entire GFA, which can only function as long as the participants in that Agreement are willing for it to do so. Demanding that Northern Ireland is detached economically from the rest of the United Kingdom, without the consent of the population, carries the danger of strongly alienating one side of the community there. Frustrating the UK’s efforts to come to a balanced accommodation with Brussels will inevitably lead to some in London questioning the foundation on which the GFA is based, trust that Ireland and the UK can be close and mutually supportive allies. There is also the damage that is being done to community relations in Northern Ireland.
The GFA recognised that cross border co-operation was dependent on consensus north of the Border. Meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council always had at least one Minister from either side of the communal divide; and the GFA specifically states that any further development of North-South arrangements is “to be by agreement… with the specific endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas (Irish Houses of Parliament)”. By seeking to bypass the consent of one side of the community, the Irish Government is deepening division and undermining the whole basis on which the GFA was built. This position is developed further in our recent Policy Exchange paper The Irish Border and the Principle of Consent.
The upholding of the GFA is, of course, a laudable aim and is shared by authorities in Dublin, Brussels and London. The maintenance of the present mutually beneficial arrangements on the Irish border is also very desirable. The present policy course by Dublin is unlikely to achieve either. By ignoring the essential element of consent, the Irish Government is placing the progress of decades of good work in jeopardy.
There needs to be a new British/Irish initiative to break the present logjam by making a declaration that the future of the border will not be used to stop the signing of a Withdrawal Agreement. Both the EU and the UK should undertake to use their best efforts to preserve all existing measures to secure an invisible border and to preserve all existing measures of cross border co-operation under the aegis of the GFA. This would allow Brexit to proceed in an ordered manner and the two-year transition period to kick in. The future trade talks would hopefully achieve the above aspiration.
The alternative – a continued impasse, economic damage and resultant ill feelings all round – is in nobody’s interest.
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