The five years since Brexit have damaged the historic 1998 deal
I remember when we got our copy of the Good Friday Agreement in the post. My mum sitting on the sofa and reading it eagerly. My grandparents discussing it over dinner. We lost our copy, but I found one in a charity shop a few years ago, the pages dog-eared and bent. The previous owners had clearly read it more than once.
The genius of the agreement is found in its language. Every community got something out of it. It affirms Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. It offers a path to a united Ireland. North and south will unite if the majority wish it so. Northern Ireland will not be dragged out of the Union under the barrel of a gun. Careful words. A fine balancing act.
Last week, the former Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, Louise Haigh, told GB News that the Government should remain neutral when a border poll is called. Contradicting her party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, she said that Labour should adopt the same position.
She cited the Downing Street Declaration, indicated that it was a statement of neutrality and said that it was an important principle in the run-up to the agreement. The comments were criticised by unionists and loyalists.
Labour has been neutral on Irish unity for over 20 years now. I don’t agree with Haigh’s interpretation of the declaration. A recent report by a group of academics at University College London concluded that there is no legal obligation for the Government to be neutral in a border poll.
It’s likely that many unionists and loyalists wouldn’t have supported the agreement if that position had been adopted. Even so, Haigh’s comments spurred debate about what was agreed all those years ago.
Since the Brexit referendum, debate about the agreement and what it means has raged on and off. Does Brexit breach the Good Friday Agreement? Does it stop a hard border being imposed north and south? Is the NI Protocol in breach of the agreement? These questions have been — and are being — put before the courts.
I’m a legal nerd, so litigation is welcome and to be expected. Debate about the agreement is healthy. There’s a difference between that and poking each other in the eye. A grim consequence of the past five years is that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has been weaponised.
You’re in breach of the agreement for supporting Brexit, we scream. You’re in breach because you opposed it, others yell. Impose a hard border to save the agreement. Keep the Protocol to protect the peace process. And on and on it goes.
Outside Northern Ireland, the agreement has been weaponised by external actors. Lord Frost has stated that the Protocol breaches the agreement. Meanwhile, Government lawyers stand in the High Court in Belfast and argue otherwise.
The British Government says it’s fighting for the peace process while it dangles a hard border in the faces of nationalists and republicans. The EU says it’s protecting the agreement, while unionists rail against its decisions. It’s hard not to be cynical.
To be clear: I disagree with Louise Haigh’s comments, but I’m not saying that she’s weaponised the agreement. She and Keir Starmer have unwittingly walked into a slabbering match.
In 1998, people were told, “It’s your decision.” The Good Friday Agreement made people believe that they had control over their future. Whatever happened next would be up to us, we were told. Then Brexit happened, splitting us in two. We’ve had no control since. People are trying to grasp on to something solid and familiar.
There’s nothing wrong with expressing our anger, but we’ve carved paragraphs and words into a battering ram. What “spirit of concord”? We’ve adopted the energy of litigation solicitors in Laganside Courthouse. I spend a fair bit of time in that court and, believe me, we’re doing it wrong.
The agreement offers us a map and a way forward. It should guide us through difficult times. Consensus, understanding and a reaching out of the hand. This should have been the starting point in 2016.
We need to be careful. The PUP’s statement withdrawing support for the agreement was dismissed, but it should raise alarm bells. Support for the agreement is high, but the past five years have done serious damage.
We need people to support the current arrangements. They will not survive if they are used as weapon. When we weaponise the agreement, we raise the stakes. We raise the spectre of what came before.
Opponents of the agreement are waiting in the wings, eager to capitalise on declining support. They don’t want reform, but to toss everything on the pyre.
So much is contained in those 13 pages. Peace. Hope. The weight of history and the promise of something better. It isn’t perfect. It contains painful compromises that, years later, still sting. Even so, I’m grateful to everyone who voted Yes.
The agreement came through our letterbox in an envelope, nothing else attached. We shouldn’t take it for granted.