Northern Ireland’s precarious peace

On Friday, UK leader of the opposition revealed a leaked Treasury Paper which undermines the Prime Ministers claims that there will be no checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. My earlier post on each of the party’s Brexit positions pointed out how critical Northern Ireland has been in the Brexit debate.

In my post about Scotland and the 2019 election I said that understanding of Scottish politics throughout the rest of the UK was poor. The situation is even worse in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has a fraught history of conflict and sectarian violence. Bitter divisions within the community go back generations and continue to run deep.

Since the Republic of Ireland gained independence in 1922, the six counties of Northern Ireland have been in dispute. From the late 1960s through to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 a bloody conflict occurred. Whilst this was often portrayed as Catholic vs Protestant (and this played a part), the real issue was whether Ireland should be part of the Irish Republic in the South or be part of the United Kingdom.

The Good Friday Agreement achieved a compromise. It was agreed that were would be power sharing between involving both communities within Northern Ireland. Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament would have greater autonomy to make decisions in the 6 counties. Though Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland was also a party to this agreement. Critical to making this agreement work, was that both the UK and the Irish Republic were members of the European Union, thus were part of a common market. This made it easier to have borderless trade and free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I have been lucky enough to visit the area a couple of times. Currently when you drive from the Republic of Ireland to the North you barely notice the border. The main differences are the road signs go from kilometers to miles (very confusing at first), and the signs in the Republic say Derry and in the North say Londonderry.

For the last 21 years people have moved freely between north and south. The sectarian violence and division hasn’t completely gone away. But for the generation reaching adulthood now, they have known relative peace compared with the situation in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Brexit threw a massive spanner in the works. It seems when people voted on 23 June 2016, few outside of Northern Ireland considered the impact this would have on the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU with 55.8% voting to stay and 44.2 voting to leave.

The Good Friday Agreement was always a compromise. In each Stormont election, the margin between the Unionists and the Republicans has narrowed. Many expect that in the not too distant future Republicans will be the majority in Northern Ireland. What could have happened under the Good Friday Agreement, is a peaceful transition where hopefully both communities continued to be heard. What the Brexit result and subsequent brinkmanship and grandstanding has done, is inflame old divisions and risk the precarious peace in Northern Ireland being lost.

In the March 2017 Stormont elections, The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remained the largest party, but only by one seat. Sinn Fein won 27 seats and the DUP 28. Negotiations for power sharing broke down. Shortly after Theresa May called an early election and lost her majority in Westminster. For the DUP this was a golden opportunity. They no longer needed to negotiate with Sinn Fein, they could just jump into bed with the Tories in Westminster.

The DUP support Brexit, and a hard Brexit. Their position in government has been that they don’t want Northern Ireland to be treated any differently to the rest of the UK. Two problems. One, the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain, so they are not representing the views of Northern Ireland voters. Two, Geography is not on their side. Whatever your views on Northern Irish politics, the fact remains that Belfast is a 2 hour drive from Dublin. Northern Ireland is part of the Island of Ireland, and their economies are intertwined. Having had 21 years of free movement and being part of a single market, there is no way to protect this without having some sort of special arrangement for Northern Ireland.

Image result for northern ireland brexit
Billboard near the boarder of Northern Ireland and The Irish Republic. 

Sinn Fein refuse to take their seats in Westminster, as they refuse to swear allegiance to the Queen or accept English rule over Northern Ireland. This would seem quite a principled position by Sinn Fein, however despite not taking their seats, Sinn Fein have claimed over £1 million in expenses over the last decade. Given the serious impact Brexit will have on Northern Ireland, and given the role the DUP has played in government, Sinn Fein needs to really consider whether they are representing their community well.

Boris Johnson’s promise that there would be no checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain don’t stand up to scrutiny. What is clear is that the Conservatives understand there is no way to get what the DUP want from the European Union. And the DUP don’t do compromise. At all. The tighter the margins are between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the more hard line the DUP become. They seem to have applied the same tactics with the Tories – and ended up being the coalition partners from hell.

Thursday’s general election may not be an easy one for the DUP. Having failed to form a government in Stormont, they instead formed an alliance with the Tories in Westminster and achieved very little. Like in many parts of the UK, there will be tactical voting at play. Sinn Fein has stood aside in 3 constituencies and encouraged their voters to support other remain parties. In the May 2019 EU elections the DUP lost of the two seats they previously held. They potentially may face similar loses this week.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, there has been a surge in Northern Irish from protestant/unionist communities applying for passports from the Republic of Ireland. We can’t assume that this means support for a united Ireland has increased, but it does indicated a shift in attitudes. For many in Northern Ireland, especially those who’ve grown up since the Good Friday Agreement, there is a desire for pragmatism and to not return to the conflict of the past. Also for Northern Ireland to have a strong and prosperous economy. The main political parties in Northern Ireland will find that if they don’t evolve, they’ll be cast aside.

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