Once again, the hand of history hovers over Ireland

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Ireland Brexit border problem [Aidan Crawley/EPA]

Northern Ireland is unique and unique solutions must be found to ensure that Brexit does not threaten the Irish peace process, twenty years after the landmark Good Friday Agreement writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is the head of the Go-Governance Institute in Vienna. This piece first appeared in German in the Wiener Zeitung.

The killing, torture and maiming remain scarred in the living memory of every family in Northern Ireland. The murals documenting the murders that took place on both sides serve as a safety valve for mistrust. Belfast is still a city with a wall, albeit a “peace wall”, a symbol of a fragile peace.

The 1970s was filled with news of Northern Ireland; deaths, bombings and hunger strikes. But this ceased to be ‘news’. The horror wore off as emotions became numbed by the same daily story. One peace attempt failed after another. It seemed the Irish Question that had for so long dogged the British Isles would never go away nor the human tragedy that accompanied it.

For many the image of the Republic of Ireland in mainland UK was associated with a an economically backward country with beautiful but rainy landscapes. The island was blighted historically with a series of famines when potato crops failed. Irish workers were common in England and Wales throughout Time. Often they would be found as “navvies” working on building sites and road construction.

The Republic of Ireland became a member of the European Economic Communities with the United Kingdom in 1973, and steadily found a new economic and political identity and self-confidence. This factor helped open the way for a resolution of the conflict.

The negotiations were often on the verge of collapse when one side seemed happy, the other, by definition, suspicious would reject any potential deal. “I feel the hand of history on our shoulder”, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair remarked.

The Good Friday Agreement, finally clinched on April 10, 1998, comprises two components, one a multi-party treaty and the other between London and Dublin. This paved the way for decentralisation to Northern Ireland with power sharing between previously warring sides. Importantly, respect for human rights is enshrined in the agreement, which has so far deterred some Conservatives from altering the status of human rights for the UK as a whole. The Agreement, in fact, sought to entrench the status quo, giving assurances to both sides that the delicate balance of power would not be tilted in favour of one or the other. Northern Ireland was recognised as a legitimate part of the UK, but at the same time the door was still open for reunification.

Brexit has thrown up a challenge to the peace process. Since the June 2016 vote, the question of what to do at the border between the North and Republic has remained one of the most vexed issues facing EU and UK negotiators. The UK government tried to postpone the issue arguing it would be putting the cart before the horse to talk about the border until the new trade relationship between the UK and the EU was clear.

The issue has been complicated by the result of the 2017 general election. The Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Now it is the DUP that props up Theresa May’s government with an effective veto on any deal regarding Brexit.

Unlike the Good Friday Agreement which settled on a status quo acceptable to all sides, Brexit is about change. How much and with what ramifications that has for the border is, as yet, unknown.

But for many young people in the UK, Northern Ireland has ceased to be the symbol it once was. In the last election campaign, the Conservatives tried to paint Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – a supporter of a united Ireland – as an ally of the Irish Republican Army but for young people it was distant history with little bearing on current social problems. And just as twenty years ago, youth in Northern Ireland considered violence as a part of daily life so now peace has become the norm. No one wants a return to the Troubles – neither in London, Brussels, Dublin or Belfast – and so many refer to flexible and imaginative solutions which have so far not been defined. All are agreed Northern Ireland is unique and unique solutions have to be found.

In the end the border is likely to be some kind of customs border, not the militarised security border of old. And customs management is an exclusive EU competence. Jean-Claude Juncker has described the Irish border as a European problem, while Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty commits the EU to promoting prosperity and peaceful cooperation with its neighbours, and very soon the UK, including Northern Ireland, will be an EU neighbour.

While little mention is made of the EU in the Good Friday agreements, most concur that it has played a stabilising role in the peace process. Yet with minority governments in Dublin and London, a periodic power vacuum in Belfast, and the EU unsure of its future path, one can truly say the hand of history hovers once more over the island of Ireland.

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