After over three decades of conflict, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement supposedly brought peace to the province creating an agreement between British and Irish government’s about how Northern Ireland should be governed …
As those who lived through the period will know, it was long-awaited and extremely complex, hence the length of the conflict. After terrorist attacks, hunger strikes and many unnecessary deaths the underlying issues were never going to vanish with the signing of an agreement. However, it was a hugely significant turning point and step towards peace.
Brexit has become the definition of division. The UK leaving the EU will renew old antagonisms; no to mention the already trenchant division within the nation with those demanding a second referendum — this splitting the country almost directly down the middle. When you bring Ireland into the equation, a place which only in recent history has been able to somewhat mend the tense disagreements, the issue becomes not only complex but dangerous.
The backstop issue is one which became a deal-breaker between Theresa May, the rest of her party and the EU. May favoured the backstop as an insurance policy. It would mean that whatever happened in terms of trade agreements between the rest of the UK and the EU, there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The issue remains that many hardline Brexiters want a complete divorce between the UK and the EU, but my fear is that they don’t fully understand the historical context of the Troubles and the potential violence a hard border could cause. This begs the question: are the right people in charge of this issue, given its complexity?
Boris Johnson, the very likely future PM, has so far given a confused response on the issue. He claims he would leave the EU without a deal whilst also vowing there will be no hard border. He also admitted he doesn’t fully understand the economic relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is scary, to say the least, given the possible consequences of handling this issue without a fully informed understanding of the situation.
A hard border in Ireland wouldn’t work as border checks, which were removed with the Good Friday Agreement, would be reinstated — potentially igniting violence. However, as the UK intends to leave the EU single market and the customs union there must be border checks of some sort, but a border down the Irish Sea also creates an issue because trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be affected. It appears to have become an impossible issue where either way many people will be dissatisfied.
Similarly, during the Troubles the Irish and British governments alike struggled to find a solution which would satisfy the majority due to their mutually exclusive aims, with nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and loyalists wanting to become part of the UK in what became an extremely violent struggle.
Perhaps geographical distance or just naivety led many people in other parts of the UK to believe that the issues of the Troubles are a thing of the past. But the truth is that that period still casts a very dark shadow over Ireland today.
The terrorist incident which led to the death of journalist Lyra McKee in April of this year draws many terrifying parallels to the violence of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. The senseless loss of life, the use of petrol bombs and the involvement of the New IRA, to name a few. If this isn’t a clear example of the volatility of the situation in Ireland, then nothing is because a young journalist died whilst simply doing her job.
Politicians dealing with Brexit need to take more responsibility. Their ill-planned decisions in the coming months regarding the Irish border may create a reaction which could spark a domestic tornado. This isn’t just a political and economic issue, although these factors are important; people’s lives are at stake. It would therefore be an understatement to say that it is irresponsible to cause any further division in the province of Ireland. Hopefully, politicians will acknowledge this simple but vital necessity when going forward.