The British Government repeatedly emphasises its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. For instance, in the December Joint Report from the negotiators of the EU and the UK, it committed to protecting the Agreement. However, its actions would suggest that this does not, in fact, apply equally “in all its parts”. Ciarán Galway writes.
The British-Irish Agreement recognised the “unique relationship” between the two islands “as partners in the EU” and the EU has been instrumental in reinforcing the “habits of cooperation” between the British and as Irish governments as the two co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. These habits are being challenged by Brexit. Taoiseach Varadkar illustrated this, advising “Brexit is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement simply because it threatens to drive a wedge between Britain and Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”
Under Article 1 (v) of the British-Irish Agreement (the international treaty component of the Good Friday Agreement), the two governments: “Affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.”
This means that, the British Government, as the sovereign power, must exercise its jurisdiction with “rigorous impartiality” on behalf of “all the people”. In the event of Irish reunification, this obligation would fall upon the Irish Government. As such, as a central tenet of the Agreement, decisions over the constitutional future fall to the political actors in Northern Ireland as a matter of self-determination.
However, as commentator Brian Feeney argues, the British Government has failed to uphold the principle of parity of esteem for the identity, ethos and aspirations of the nationalist community – these have simply been ignored. This has served as the death knell for the current Government’s ability to act as an honest broker in Northern Ireland. Symptomatic of this reality is the nationalist community’s apparent rejection of Westminster at the polls and a stated preference for an independent mediator to chair negotiations aimed at restoring Stormont.
In each speech she makes, Theresa May, by default, omits any reference to the defining characteristics and aspirations of nationalism. Simultaneously, through the confidence and supply agreement, she has aligned her government to the anti-Agreement DUP and therefore alienated nationalists. In acquiescing to minor DUP demands, a party which has consistently objected to human rights and equality advances, the British Government has threatened the integrity of the Agreement.
As it flies close to contravention of the Agreement, the objectivity or ‘impartiality’ of the British Government is at risk of plummeting earthwards in Icarus-like fashion. Queen’s University Belfast’s Colin Harvey suggests: “There have been warnings for some time that the UK Government has been close to constitutional negligence in its handling of Northern Ireland.”
Furthermore, when the UK exits the EU, it leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. As such, European citizens in Northern Ireland will no longer be able to utilise the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This, Feeney writes, “begins to unravel the network of rights-based provisions” contained in the Good Friday Agreement. “It was never envisaged that the final arbiter of human rights and equality here would be the UK Supreme Court,” he emphasises. This is emblematic of the British Government’s “quiet retreat” from the legal and constitutional obligations of the Agreement.
Brexit poses an opportunity to seriously disrupt the various shoots of north-south cooperation which have taken root in the peace sowed by the Good Friday Agreement and blossomed under the patronage of the EU.
Adopting a fanatical pro-Brexit policy has enabled the DUP to find common cause with newfound Tory allies, sharing together a mutual disdain for the Good Friday Agreement. Perennial opponents of the 1998 Agreement, including erstwhile UUP dissident Jeffrey Donaldson MP, have now forged a predictable alliance with the Tory Party’s right wing.
For instance, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove has been a long-term opponent of the Agreement. In 2000, he wrote ‘The Price of Peace: An analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland’, a critique which argued that “current policy to Northern Ireland is flawed and should be abandoned”. The Agreement, he added, “has, at its heart, however, an even greater wickedness. It is a capitulation to violence, a validation of terrorism.”
For fanatical Tory Brexiteers, the Agreement is an impediment to their ultimate fantasies regarding British sovereignty. Indeed, former Chief Press Officer for 10 Downing Street, Matthew O’Toole, outlined the basis for this anti-Agreement opposition in an Evening Standard column.
“Under the Agreement… the Irish Government retains a say in the running of Northern Ireland. This is why hard Brexiteers have set their sights on the Good Friday Agreement: because it implies the UK’s sovereignty cannot be untrammelled, even after Brexit. UK sovereignty is, in one corner of the realm, qualified by the rights of one group of citizens and by another EU member state that has a say in the administration of the region,” he explained.
The Good Friday Agreement stipulates: “In recognition of the Irish Government’s special interest in Northern Ireland and of the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in relation to Northern Ireland, there will be regular and frequent meetings of the [British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference] concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward views and proposals.”
In July, following the first convening of the BIIGC in over a decade, there were no displays of accord between the British and Irish governments. Wary of DUP opposition, the British Government did not facilitate either a joint press conference or the issuing of a joint statement. However, it was agreed that the Conference would meet again in the autumn. Arlene Foster, meanwhile dismissed the BIIGC as “a talking shop”.
Under the smokescreen of Brexit, its proponents have stridently lined up to launch an assault on the Agreement.
For instance, earlier this year, under the headline ‘Let’s face facts, the Good Friday Agreement is Failing’, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan loosed a flurry of criticism in his Sunday Telegraph column. “Its flaws have become clearer over time. The original deal represented a bribe… The Belfast Agreement was a consequence, not a cause, of the end of terrorism, and there are less corrupting ways to guarantee civilian politics,” he wrote.
Furthermore, former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson MP appeared to endorse a Telegraph article on Twitter which suggested: “The collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland shows the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use.”
Most recently, Foster, who herself voted against the Good Friday Agreement and consequently resigned from the UUP in 2003, told The Telegraph that the Agreement was not “a sacrosanct piece of legislation”. Hinting at an amendment of the Agreement to secure a final deal for Brexit, she opined: “It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted Remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can’t touch the Belfast Agreement.”
Regardless, politics is cyclical, and the confidence and supply arrangement will run its course. In the context of Brexit, it remains to be seen whether the damage currently being inflicted on east-west relations and indeed, the Good Friday Agreement, will be lasting.