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A dangerous lack of understanding about the nature of the threat that Brexit poses to peace in Northern Ireland is based on a misconception about the causes of the 30-year-long Troubles that ended with the Good Friday Agreement.
The conflict was never primarily about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but about the civil and economic rights of the Roman Catholic minority in the north in relation to the Protestant majority. It was the civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968, a protest which was brutally attacked by the police in front of the television cameras, which was the crucial moment in the rise of peaceful opposition to a one-party unionist state. When this failed to achieve its ends, the door was opened to violence and the rise of the Provisional IRA.
At the heart of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which finally ended the most ferocious guerrilla war seen in western Europe since the Second World War, were equal political, social and economic rights. The outcome was potentially a stable balance of power between the two communities underpinned by a legal system, and a means to enforce it, that created a legal non-violent means to redress grievances, prevent discrimination and provide equal justice for all.
The role of European courts as the ultimate decision makers in equality and human rights legislation may feel like an undemocratic intrusion to many in the UK. Why should we obey the European Convention on Human Rights or the Charter of Fundamental Rights when we have our own traditional homegrown British liberties?
But in Northern Ireland such liberties were never available to a large part of the population living in what one British newspaper in 1968 called “John Bull’s political slum”. The police behaved like a violent sectarian militia and all aspects of political, social and economic life were tainted by discrimination. For victims of this system, a decisive role from European courts was an essential guarantee of equal citizenship under the law.
It is this network of laws under an independent non-partisan EU authority that is now under threat from Brexit. The danger is made clear by Michael Farrell, a solicitor and one of the original leaders of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in 1968-69, writing in The Irish Times.
He argues that “the UK Withdrawal Act, passed by Westminster during the summer, proposes to end the role of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU Court of Justice just as soon as the UK leaves the EU. And, although the act proposes to retain most existing EU laws intact, British government ministers will have the power to repeal any of those laws that they don’t like, without consulting parliament.”
In seeking a Brexit agreement, Theresa May and her government have been glibly assuring everybody that nothing is going to change the laws as applied in Northern Ireland. Farrell points out that “a joint report signed by May and Michel Barnier last December promised that there would be no diminution of human rights and equality protections in Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit. But when the EU negotiators tried to put this in binding legal language last March, the UK rejected it.”
This is an ominous precedent for a post-Brexit future in which the essential legal underpinnings of the Good Friday Agreement are being steadily eroded. Plenty of Brexiteers believe that the priority is to get out of the EU and, once that is achieved, any assurances given along the way can be safely ignored. The EU may also lose interest in what happens in Northern Ireland in a final furore over Brexit negotiations.
How likely is this to happen? Why should a British government saw through the branch on which it is sitting in Northern Ireland, by once again destabilising relations between the two communities? Bringing an end to the conflict there was one of the few undoubted successes of the British state in recent decades.
Unfortunately, it is all too likely to happen since the May government has already put its own interests far ahead of the damage it does to peace in Northern Ireland. It did so in 2017 when May reached an agreement with Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party to provide the votes in parliament which keep her in power. At one stroke, she ended the British government’s neutrality between nationalists and unionists declared in 1991. This had enabled it to present itself as fair interlocutor when negotiating with nationalists, unionists and the Dublin government.
The DUP now determines the very existence of the May government at a time when the Conservatives are desperate to avoid a general election because Jeremy Corbyn and Labour might win it. There has been no executive and assembly in Northern Ireland for 19 months. The institutions of power sharing are being marginalised and the overall balance of power is being skewed towards the unionist community and their representatives.
This slide backwards into a permanent crisis in Northern Ireland will very likely accelerate. There is a return to the self-defeating ineptitude of British policy in Northern Ireland in the 20 years after those first civil rights marches in 1968 and 1969. Unionist politicians had treated slogans like “one man, one vote”, an end to gerrymandering, fair allocation of jobs and houses, and repeal of the Special Powers Act as revolutionary demands. Peaceful civil rights marchers were denounced as cats paws of the IRA, solely inspired by an Irish nationalist agenda, seeking to overthrow the state.
It was a self-fulfilling response. I was living in Belfast between 1972 and 1975 and it was extraordinary to watch the way in which the British government and army acted as the recruiting sergeants of the Provisional IRA. It took at least 20 years for governments to take on board that peace could be restored within the boundaries of the Northern Ireland state, but only if that state played fair, guaranteed equal rights in every sphere of life, and was not an oppressive instrument of one community.
As with any topic relating to Brexit, useful analysis is blurred by discussing political issues in economic terms. Certainly, any attempt to restore an economic frontier along the 310-mile border with its estimated 200 crossing points would face resistance and could only be implemented – and even then ineffectually – by police and army in fortified positions. Inability to close the border and control border areas was a persistent British military weakness during the whole course of the Troubles.
The British government is removing essential building blocks of the Good Friday Agreement of which the nature of the border is only one element. It has most crucially abandoned its own neutrality between unionists and nationalists and is threatening the legal guarantees to civil rights and equality given authority by the role of the EU. Without anybody paying much attention, the toxic ingredients that were the original cause of the Troubles 50 years ago are being reconstituted.