The Good Friday Agreement is the best hope for all these islands ... we throw that away at our peril: Alban Maginness
Brexiteer critics of the 1998 deal should tell us what their alternative is to power-sharing, writes Alban Maginness
In the wake of the collapse of the Stormont talks, there is a very dangerous notion that the Good Friday Agreement is finished. Bad and all as we are now, this mischievous idea must not gain traction or we really will be left hopelessly adrift. One of the worst offenders is the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, a Brexiteer, who said that the collapse of the negotiations shows that, "the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use".
Such an irresponsible statement from a senior Tory illustrates a glaring ignorance. His failure to understand the value of the agreement is, frankly, shocking. It makes a mockery of his previous position as a custodian of the agreement when he was in the Cabinet.
The fact is that the Good Friday Agreement is not finished and is the only structure that gives all of us ultimate hope for the future. The fact is the agreement is the only context in which our problems can be gradually and peacefully resolved over a prolonged period of time.
The agreement represents our only hope to reconcile the two political traditions that inhabit this political space. The agreement, in essence, represents the totality of relationships within these islands. It is a three-stranded process: Strand One being the relationship within Northern Ireland; Strand Two being the north-south relationship; and Strand Three being the east-west relationship.
Some people seem to be believe that the agreement is simply confined to a power-sharing arrangement between the two political traditions in Northern Ireland: it is much more than that.
In response to Owen Paterson, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "What the GFA, at its very core, represents is peace. It is the first time we have properly had an accommodation between the peoples of this island and the peoples of our islands in many a hundred years."
Another Brexiteer MP, Labour's Kate Hoey, has described the agreement as now being "unsustainable". To be fair to Ms Hoey, she has never been an enthusiastic supporter of the agreement in the first place, so her remarks are not all that surprising.
But is Kate Hoey really saying that power-sharing and partnership are no longer the solution to our divided politics?
If that is what she is saying, then it is truly a counsel of despair, because power-sharing and partnership lie at the very heart of Strand One of the agreement.
Another avid Brexiteer, Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP, has also touted the same notion in a recent newspaper article.
Why are these radical Brexiteers, like Hannan, Paterson and Hoey, finding common cause in writing off the agreement?
The answer is that they see the agreement as an obstacle to achieving a clean break from the EU. The agreement entangles the whole Brexit issue and makes Brexit a much more complicated process.
The EU has wisely made protecting and supporting the agreement an important aspect of their negotiations with the British Government. The Europeans closely associate the agreement with the Irish border issue. They rightly see the agreement as being posited on a common membership of the European Union that the Brexiteers all instinctively loathe. The agreement is, therefore, like a red rag to a bull as far as the Brexiteers are concerned.
While the recent talks failure has been a huge disappointment for everybody and the likelihood of power-sharing being restored soon is remote, that should not mean that one loses faith in the integrity of the power-sharing model.
Furthermore, if one examines Strand Two and Strand Three of the workings of the agreement, there is little doubt (barring the rude introduction of Brexit) that these institutions have operated well and assisted in the development of a civilised, friendly and respectful relationship between Britain and Ireland over the past two decades.
In the context of Brexit becoming a reality, the British-Irish Council could be a very important institution within these islands - especially given Scotland's independent attitude towards leaving the EU.
Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has reacted sharply to all these ill-judged attacks and has demanded that the radical Brexiteers should respect the 82% vote of all the people in Ireland who endorsed the agreement in 1998. After all, he argues, it is these same people that demand respect for their vote to leave the EU.
But those, like the politicians quoted above, who glibly retail such anti-agreement sentiments, have a duty to outline what their alternative is.
It took many years of dogged, hard political effort to achieve the agreement.
It represents the best political settlement available for the people of Ireland, north and south, and the people of Britain as well.
To undermine it, or, even worse, to abandon it altogether, would be a disaster and would threaten the sorely-won peace that has been so successfully achieved.