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Is the Northern Ireland Peace Process at Risk?

Brexit is destabilizing Northern Ireland. London’s pursuit of a hard Brexit and the return of border politics could unravel the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the province’s conflict. It might need the United States to rescue the accord

By: EBR - Posted: Friday, March 19, 2021

"EU-UK relations are strained, but unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is somehow insulated from those tensions—and they cease to be instrumentalized—the potential consequences for peace on the island of Ireland are serious."
"EU-UK relations are strained, but unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is somehow insulated from those tensions—and they cease to be instrumentalized—the potential consequences for peace on the island of Ireland are serious."

by Judy Dempsey*

EDWARD BURKE/ ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR CONFLICT, SECURITY, AND TERRORISM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM

Yes. There is an escalating threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland. What was true for Irish nationalists—that a hard border after Brexit would threaten peace—is also true for unionists. A border down the Irish Sea is especially threatening to the peace process because it marks a significant detachment of Northern Ireland from Great Britain and an unprecedented weakening of the British government’s influence in what is supposed to be a sovereign part of the UK.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that deals with the situation on the island of Ireland, highlights the present vulnerability of the UK. The government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on a hard Brexit in spite of the damage it would do to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. It puts Northern Ireland’s unionists in an invidious position and fuels a dangerous perception in that community that Northern Ireland’s Britishness is being stripped away through a combination of English perfidy and Irish opportunism.

Relations between the Irish government and unionists in Northern Ireland are profoundly damaged. Ireland has to defend the principle of the Northern Ireland Protocol while also trying to mitigate some of its negative implications and reach out to unionists. British government brinkmanship in Brussels makes that very difficult, if not impossible.

MICHAEL COLLINS/ DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AND EUROPEAN AFFAIRS AND FORMER SECOND SECRETARY GENERAL IN THE DEPARTMENT OF AN TAOISEACH WITH RESPONSIBILITY FOR NORTHERN IRELAND AND ANGLO-IRISH RELATIONS

No one can be happy about the way the situation in Northern Ireland has developed in recent weeks. It must be hoped that the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement are robust enough to withstand the current tensions and that the damage does not become embedded.

This is a time not only for calm but also for determination. Those issues that are genuinely causing trading difficulties obviously need to be actively addressed through the mechanisms that exist between the EU and the UK. And, of course, this must be done in a way that does not affect the integrity of the European Single Market.

To be clear: Brexit has caused these difficulties. The British government has a huge responsibility both to honor its legal commitments to the EU and to energetically protect the Good Friday Agreement.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland. It is a bespoke solution for a unique and sensitive situation.

Northern Ireland remains a fragile place. It has come a long way thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, but its fragility should not be underestimated. It would be unforgivable to allow progress to be lost.

The tools are there to help find reasonable outcomes to the current difficulties. In particular, the partnership between Dublin and London must be urgently renewed. The UK and Ireland need to get back on the same page on Northern Ireland and work together to underpin the Good Friday Agreement. And the UK needs to stabilize its relationship with the EU. This is the way in which peace can best be assured.

FEDERICO FABBRINI/ PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN LAW IN THE SCHOOL OF LAW AND GOVERNMENT AND PRINCIPAL OF THE BREXIT INSTITUTE AT DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY

The politicking around the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is indeed having a detrimental effect on the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The UK left the EU in January 2020 on the basis of a legally binding international treaty—the Brexit withdrawal agreement—that included specific measures to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. To achieve this shared objective, the UK agreed to maintain Northern Ireland in the same regulatory and customs arrangements as the Republic of Ireland and, hence, the EU.

Yet, on two occasions, the UK government has taken steps that breach both the letter and the spirit of the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the withdrawal agreement. Most recently, in March 2021, London unilaterally decided to extend grace periods on checks of certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

This course of action has profoundly damaged trust between the UK and the EU to the point that the European Parliament’s ratification of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which has been applied provisionally since January 1, hangs in the balance.

Recent events have also significantly destabilized the situation in Northern Ireland, fueling intercommunal tensions in ways that have not been seen for decades. Brexit has threatened the settlement enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and it is essential that both parties commit to the faithful implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is specifically designed to preserve the achievements of the last twenty-three years of the peace process.

KIRSTY HUGHES/ DIRECTOR OF THE SCOTTISH CENTRE ON EUROPEAN RELATIONS

Brexit was always likely to risk creating problems for the Northern Ireland peace process, notably in terms of borders, because by definition, Brexit aimed to delink the UK from the EU, including the Republic of Ireland.

There are numerous ironies here. In the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain, but it was the Brexit-supporting Democratic Unionist Party that kept former UK prime minister Theresa May in power, pushed for a problematic hard Brexit, and is now outraged at the inevitable outcome of that course. Even so, May did at least aim to keep the UK indefinitely in the EU Customs Union to lessen any risks to the peace process.

May’s successor, Boris Johnson, then chose to put a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland rather than keep the UK in the customs union. Brexit ideology and sovereignty rhetoric were prioritized over the peace process.

The British media and the opposition Labour Party treated this extraordinary fragmentation of the UK’s internal market rather lightly. Now, the UK government appears intent on acting unilaterally—and illegally—rather than using the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. Johnson’s populist priority is keeping “Little England” Brexiteer sentiment warm, not giving serious political attention to protecting the peace process.

PETER KELLNER/ VISITING SCHOLAR AT CARNEGIE EUROPE

In principle, there are two ways in which the Northern Ireland peace process could break down. The first is that relations between the UK and the EU disintegrate to the point at which the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is overturned. This looks plausible: the EU is taking Britain to court to uphold the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed on as part of the Brexit negotiations. Tensions are running high. Neither side wants to back down.

However, if this course of action were to threaten a major crisis, Washington would step in. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson doesn’t mind offending European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but he can’t afford to alienate U.S. President Joe Biden. In the end, a deal would be done to preserve the peace process.

The second way in which the peace process could break down is more likely: diplomatic misjudgments have unintended consequences, culminating in violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement has survived for twenty-three years not only because of its detailed terms but also because it has commanded the assent of the vast majority of both the nationalist and the unionist community. The agreement’s opponents have been marginalized—until now. Recent stirrings among some unionist paramilitaries warn of possible troubles ahead. The risk of things getting out of hand are not yet high but can no longer be completely discounted.

BRIGID LAFFAN/ DIRECTOR OF THE ROBERT SCHUMAN CENTER FOR ADVANCED STUDIES AT THE EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE, FLORENCE

Yes. There is no good Brexit for the island of Ireland, as the UK’s and the Republic of Ireland’s joint membership in the EU was the scaffolding that surrounded the careful and complex balances of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU reminded the people of Northern Ireland that they are divided. London’s pursuit of a hard, sovereignty-led Brexit meant that the impact on Northern Ireland would be challenging. That is because checks and controls on goods flowing between the UK and Ireland had to happen either on the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the Brexit outcome that the UK government wanted. But it comes at the price of angering significant elements of the unionist community.

The government of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had great difficulty in absorbing the implications of the protocol and what is required to implement it. Way back in 2018, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, offered a possible solution that was discounted by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. The priority now is to rebuild trust and establish a cooperative approach so that the most fragile part of the UK does not become collateral damage. Stability on the island of Ireland requires nothing less.

JANE MORRICE/ NORTHERN IRISH POLITICIAN AND JOURNALIST, FORMER HEAD OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION OFFICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Northern Ireland has punched above its weight on the world stage for almost one hundred years. The province’s thirty-year reputation for murder and mayhem has been matched by over twenty years of peace and conflict resolution brought about by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Northern Ireland is now entering a phase, fueled by Brexit, in which divided loyalties for or against the EU have sparked tension as British and Irish rivalries, hidden under the comfort blanket of joint EU membership, are raising their heads. Attempts at compromise through the Northern Ireland Protocol, which seeks to offer the best of both worlds by keeping Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK in the European Single Market, have been accepted by pragmatists but have fallen foul of those for whom identity politics take center stage. They see the Irish and the Europeans winning the political and cultural campaign, while the British globalist approach looks to be losing its way.

But there is a third way. The Good Friday Agreement allows all citizens of Northern Ireland to be British, Irish, or both. That gives almost 2 million Northern Irish citizens’ rights above and beyond those of people in Great Britain or the rest of the EU. When the debate moves from money and markets to people and places, Northern Ireland will become the envy of Europe.

DAVID PHINNEMORE/ PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN POLITICS IN THE SCHOOL OF HISTORY, ANTHROPOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, AND POLITICS AT QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY BELFAST

Brexit—by its nature—means disruption, and so it has been for Northern Ireland. Brexit has proved divisive politically and heightened political tensions. It has been unsettling and is set to remain so.

Almost everybody has their concerns. For many in the majority in Northern Ireland who voted in 2016 for the UK to remain in the EU, they have been dragged out of the EU without their consent by English votes. For many unionists, the terms of Britain’s withdrawal struck by Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the EU threaten Northern Ireland’s position in the UK and have been imposed on them, again without their consent.

Moreover, after the peace process in effect removed the border on the island of Ireland from the politics of Northern Ireland, Brexit has meant that border politics are back. Unionists rail against additional restrictions, checks, and controls on the movement of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. A border down the Irish Sea has emerged. Others remain determined to ensure there is no return to a hard land border.

People are unhappy and frustrated. Brexit has demonstrated its disruptive force. Northern Ireland has been unsettled. A key test of the shared commitment to peace of all concerned is to manage the new political realities.

DAGMAR SCHIEK/ SYNNOTT FAMILY CHAIR IN EU LAW AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK

Recent threats of renewed loyalist violence in response to the perceived border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are only one indication that Northern Ireland’s peace is a negative peace at best.

The riots that resulted in the death of Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019 seem a distant memory. And since then, micro-occurrences such as kneecapping and loyalist threats have abounded.

Ungenerous people might point out that at least no leaders from the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont have met paramilitary organizations to discuss how to alleviate their grievances in response to nationalist threats.

What, then, is the contribution of Brexit—and of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement—to all of the above?

As the Ulster Unionist Party, which campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum, recognized, the UK leaving the EU was always of more concern for unionist identities in Northern Ireland than for nationalist ones.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement has irrevocably created a hybrid identity for Northern Ireland: it remains in the UK until a majority decides otherwise. In the meantime, Northern Ireland should be supported in socioeconomic terms. This requires an all-Irish economic transaction.

Brexit would always enhance such a transaction as a necessity, and this is what the protocol tries to achieve. It is inevitable that this arrangement acts as another incinerator for community tensions.

BEN TONRA/ PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS IN THE SCHOOL OF POLITICS AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN

Brexit was always going to pull at the threads of peace in Ireland. The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, was only ever going to be a least bad strategy to deal with Brexit’s impact. While Northern Ireland’s constitutional place within the UK is unchanged, the practical and foreseeable impacts of Brexit as well as the protocol and its implementation are being seen—and used—to undermine many unionists’ sense of constitutional and political place. This is now threatening a fragile political equilibrium in Northern Ireland.

With good faith and trust, many of these impacts could be mitigated or eliminated. But that good faith does not exist. The UK reverts to unilateral, ad hoc actions framed in adversarial rhetoric. The EU demands full adherence to the precise text of agreements made. There is no space left for an implementation of the protocol that respects strategic redlines but is rooted in creativity, proportionality, and practicality—with the lived experiences of Northern Ireland’s residents at its core.

EU-UK relations are strained, but unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is somehow insulated from those tensions—and they cease to be instrumentalized—the potential consequences for peace on the island of Ireland are serious. As they might say in Northern Ireland, political leaders in Belfast, Brussels, Dublin, and London need to “catch themselves on”—best translated as “stop being ridiculous.”

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: carnegieeurope.eu

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