Notes From the Margins…

Breaking the Irish Peace

  • April 19, 2019
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Back in the early seventies there used to be a political postcard that depicted Northern Ireland trying to speak to an England that had a cork firmly in one ear.   Ulster – and indeed the whole of the island of Ireland – has often had difficulty in making itself heard in England.  Time and again English politicians have shown themselves indifferent to and disinterested in what takes place in Ireland until it’s too late, and the English public have not been much better.

Given this history, there is nothing at all surprising about the condescension, arrogance and ignorance that so many of our politicians have shown in response to the unexpected return of Irish politics to centre stage as a result of Brexit.

For politicians drunk on imperial nostalgia, it has been infuriating to see their grandiose Brexit dreams stymied by Irish priorities.  Some, like the senior Tory who said that the ‘Irish really should know their place’,  take these priorities as a direct affront.

Others regard them as at best a minor irrelevance, and at worse a deliberate conspiracy between Remainers and the EU to deprive them of their prize through ‘Project Fear’ fantasies about the unraveling of the Irish peace process that they believe have no foundation in reality

These politicians – and the commentators who support them and recycle their narratives – have breezily dismissed the warnings of politicians who were part of the Irish peace process and realise how painfully it was achieved and how easily it could collapse.

Suggest that Brexit has put strains on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and that these strains are likely to increase if a hard border is implemented in Ireland, and Brexiters are likely to respond with the wrongheaded  ignorance that Julia Hartley-Brewer and Darren Grimes recently displayed when they compared the Irish border to the border arrangements that Switzerland has with its neighbors.

It’s not always clear whether such shallow comparisons are due to stupidity, laziness or malice, but whatever the motivations, they grossly mischaracterise and misunderstand the genuine risks that Brexit poses to the Irish Peace Process.

Armed conflicts can end when one side defeats the other, or because the contenders realise that none of them can win.   In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was the product of more than a decade of secret and public negotiations,  in which the various protagonists gradually accepted that they could not defeat their opponents militarily and agreed to move their conflict back into the terrain of politics.

With the support of the United States, the European Union,  and the British and Irish governments, republicans and unionists came to an agreement which enabled both sides to gain something in the short-term, and which paved the way for a process of consensus and consent that would decide the long-term future of Northern Ireland.

This agreement kicked a lot of cans down the road, and obliged republicans and unionists to accept things that had once been unacceptable to both sides.  Compared with the bloodshed , trauma and suffering that preceded it, its political consequences might seem negligible, but it nevertheless brought the armed conflict to an end and marginalised the more intransigent and extremist forces on either side that wanted it to continue.

This was achieved through the construction of a delicate political arrangement, underpinned by the European Convention of Human Rights, which enabled the European Court of Human Rights to act as an independent guarantor of the rights of all communities in the province.  As fellow members of the European Union, the population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were able to act as de facto members of a single nation, without abandoning the political identities and loyalties that had driven the conflict.

All this was intended to lay the foundations for political coexistence and cooperation that would make it possible – one day – to resolve the inherent contradictions underlying the agreement through negotiation and consensus.

This was no mean achievement,  and to disregard its significance and even to treat it with contempt, has been one of the greatest follies – and crimes – of the Brexit cult.

And now, with the awful killing of the young journalist and writer Lyra McKee last night, it is worth asking whether we may be witnessing the consequences of such folly.  It is too early to know whether Brexit contributed to what happened in Derry,  but it would also be stupid and reckless to ignore the possibility of such a connection.  Today the former Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer Alan McQuillan told Radio 4

the threat from dissident Republicans may grow, but it needs support from the community, which it doesn’t currently have.  They’ve openly said that they regard [Brexit] as a great recruiting sergeant and will exploit it to the hilt.

It’s easy to see how Brexit could provide such a ‘recruiting sergeant’.   For more than two years there has been no government in Northern Ireland, yet the DUP has been propping up a Tory administration intent on leaving the European Union.   If this happens then the European Court of Human Rights will no longer provide the independent guarantee it was intended to, and it will be replacement by a British bill of rights that republicans will regard as politically illegitimate.

If a hard border is implemented and patrolled by British police and customs officers, then it will be regarded by republicans as a giant political step backwards.  Even before 1998, the existence of an open border has made a united Ireland a practical everyday reality, if not a political reality.  If that border is reimposed then some ‘dissident’ groups will undoubtedly use this ‘betrayal’ as a justification to return to physical force, and some may already be doing so.

In two years time, the DUP is planning to have a national holiday to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of partition.  It is not difficult to imagine how such commemorations would be perceived by republicans in a post-Brexit Northern Ireland with a restored hard border as a constant reminder of the reality of partition.

It is impossible to know whether these possibilities are already transforming the situation on the ground in the province.   According to the Northern Ireland police, the searches carried out in the Creggan last night were ‘intelligence-led’ raids aimed at preventing planned republican violence over Easter.  The fact that fifty petrol bombs were thrown at ‘crown forces’  suggests that some republican groups were prepared for them,  and the bullet that killed Lyra McKee was intended to kill a police officer.

There may be more of this to come. History and politics cannot be erased by signatures on a piece of paper.  Even at peace – as Lyra McKee wrote so eloquently – thousands of people in Northern Ireland bear the memory of trauma and violence and share a political space where continued sectarian divisions mean that the possibility of violence is always present.

McKee described herself and her peers as ‘ceasefire babies’ born in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, and she was probably killed by another member of that post-conflict  generation. Most of the rioters in the Creggan last night were young, and could, in theory, form part of a resurgent physical force movement if the political structure that underpins the Good Friday Agreement unravels.

It is the responsibility of all politicians to everything they can to prevent that outcome.  Lyra McKee should have lived, and used her remarkable voice to help Northern Ireland continue its painful and difficult path towards a better future.

And here in England, we should mourn the death of a young woman who had so much to contribute.  And despite the insane recklessness of the Brexiters, we should take note of the warning signs emanating from Ireland and remove the cork from our ears.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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