Queen's Policy Engagement

The Good Friday Agreement remains high on the Brexit agenda, for now

Following a recent conference at Queen's University, Jamie Pow summarises some of the main themes arising from the discussions led by some of the world’s leading scholars of the Good Friday Agreement and European politics.

The Good Friday Agreement remains high on the Brexit agenda, for now

The 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement offered an opportunity to look in the rear-view mirror and take stock of Northern Ireland’s political journey over the course of the last two decades. But with the UK set to leave the European Union in less than a year, it’s important to pay due attention to the road ahead.

How exactly will Brexit affect the 1998 Agreement and its continued implementation? What are the specific challenges created by the referendum outcome? And how might these challenges be addressed? These questions formed the basis for a special conference recently organised by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in cooperation with The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice and the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast.


20 years on

Despite the many achievements of the Good Friday Agreement, few would claim it to be without its problems. In the early years, the pragmatism shown by the close relationship between Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern seemed to be sufficient to overcome immediate difficulties, but their ad hoc pragmatism, often behind closed doors, was never affirmed in a clear set of principles.

When their successors took a more distant approach to Northern Ireland and the divisions between its political parties, they failed to take seriously their role as adjudicators of the Agreement. Rather than pre-empting crises, their insistence on Northern Ireland parties’ self-adjudication of their differences reflected a hands-off style, ultimately counter-productive.

One of the key novelties of the Agreement had been recognition of the Northern Ireland ‘anomaly’: through the principle of consent, there was an affirmation of a post-sovereigntist interpretation of Northern Ireland’s legitimate constitutional position. This was central to cementing the stability of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, particularly among nationalists. But with the reassertion of traditional understandings of sovereignty from a more explicitly unionist government at Westminster, this principle has been misarticulated.

Enter Brexit. The term itself reflects a problematic understanding of the UK’s constitutional architecture in that ‘the UK’ is not, strictly speaking, ‘Britain’. The UK is a multi-national state, not a nation-state defined by a homogeneous sense of Britishness. Differential levels of support for exiting the EU were not, of course, recognised in the final referendum outcome.

In a subsequent legal challenge, the UK Supreme Court found no constitutional requirement for the different parts of the UK to endorse exiting the EU for Article 50 to be triggered. This is particularly important for Northern Ireland given that the EU is referenced in the Good Friday Agreement: at the very least, it is, for some, impossible for Northern Ireland to exit the EU without the text of the Agreement being rewritten.

Against a backdrop of renewed polarisation, with Brexit reinforcing Northern Ireland’s communal divisions, it is increasingly conceivable that the principle of consent will be put to the test in the not-too-distant future. The scene is being set by the Scottish Parliament’s vote on 15 May to withhold consent for the EU Withdrawal Bill and, in response, the UK government’s legal challenge to the Supreme Court.


The challenges of Brexit

Politically within Northern Ireland, the prospect of Brexit has produced a particularly toxic environment as unionists increasingly look across the Irish Sea and nationalists increasingly look south of the border. The preferences of the two communities have become increasingly distinct.

Since the referendum, the breadth and depth of politicisation has been exposed by a growing perception of the importance of EU membership for the deliverance of key interests, particularly among communities along the Irish border. Policy statements, manifestos, election results, press conferences and the media discourse all point to an intensification of Brexit as a wedge issue in Northern Ireland.

Politically between the UK and Ireland, relations have come under noticeable strain. As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, outside of their shared participation in EU institutions, there will be a need to re-vamp the Agreement’s Strand 2 (North-South) and Strand 3 (East-West) institutions.

Despite being a democratic expression of a legitimate preference, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has been seen as a hostile act by other member states. The failure of UK interlocutors to recognise Ireland’s agency, and the failure to recognise the EU’s existential interests to maintain solidarity with Ireland, have been harmful to diplomatic relations.

Legally, the difficulty lies in translating political agreements between the UK and the EU into enforceable, implementable arrangements. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement, protecting citizenship rights, and protecting the Common Travel Area all seem like indisputably common-sense goals. But set against the UK’s broader goals for Brexit, their legal codification isn’t so straightforward.

The Good Friday Agreement itself has never been normalised in the UK’s Constitution. Despite devolution settlements and the development of constitutional pluralism in recent decades, arguments around the constitutional integrity of the UK may pose a political obstacle to translating December’s Joint Report commitments into a legally enforceable Withdrawal Agreement.

Socially, the focus on the extreme positions around Brexit has ignored Northern Ireland’s ‘middle ground’. Successive waves of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey have found that a minority of people say they are exclusively Irish or British. A majority, by contrast, choose more nuanced forms of identity.

Stability in Northern Ireland depends on this middle ground. By reducing politics to simplified notions of sovereignty and heightened notions of dualism, Brexit poses a threat to social stability.


Addressing these challenges

Despite the breadth and depth of the challenges associated with Brexit, there are grounds for cautious optimism that some, at least, can be constructively confronted.

Within Northern Ireland, there is considerable scope for civic society to fill the vacuum left by political leaders. This could at least mitigate some of the potential political and social upheaval from any fragmentation caused by Brexit.

The UK and Ireland still have institutional venues for possible cooperation outside the EU. The Permanent Secretaries Group, the British Irish Council, the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference could all be reconvened or revamped to strengthen cooperation between the two governments and to provide mechanisms for bilateral decision-making where it is required.

The economic relationship between the UK and Ireland may change, but both may be able to recalibrate their strategic partnerships around the world. As the UK looks beyond the EU, Ireland looks increasingly set to strengthen economic relations with Germany. In the process, it has the opportunity to become a bridge between the EU’s centre of power and a post-Brexit UK.

Returning to the Good Friday Agreement itself, though sustaining the momentum of the peace process has often been framed as a challenge to be addressed in the UK’s negotiations with the EU, celebrations around its 20th anniversary have helped precipitate something of an international renaissance. In Theresa May’s Lancaster House Speech in January 2017, there was no mention of the Agreement; in the Joint Report between the UK and EU from December 2017, it was cited at the very beginning.

A big concern, of course, is that as the negotiations between the EU and UK progress, there is a risk that issues pertaining to Northern Ireland slip down the agenda. Unless the UK and EU agree enforceable solutions to uphold the spirit and provisions of the Good Friday Agreement before this month’s critical European Council, there is a danger that it becomes less of a priority.

Ultimately, however, there remains an assumption, both implicit and (increasingly) explicit, that the Good Friday Agreement must continue. That in itself is noteworthy.


Article originally appeared on Northern Slant.

The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Dr Jamie Pow
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Dr Jamie Pow is a Lecturer in Political Science at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests focus on the way citizens interact with democratic decision-making, including through elections, mini-publics and referendums.

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