On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of a 30-year conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles”. At the heart of the resolution is a power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. Brexit has called that agreement into question.
Before Brexit, trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was straightforward. Both are in the EU and share the same trade rules. Goods, services and people can flow seamlessly across borders. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and Brexit creates a de facto hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This creates a major problem. The Protestant Democratic Unionist Party supports a closer union with Britain, while the Catholic Sinn Féin aims to maintain ties with the Republic of Ireland, south of Northern Ireland. A deal is needed to avoid a return to the days before the Good Friday agreement.
When former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a Brexit deal with the EU, the Northern Ireland deal was part of it. The agreement comes into effect on January 1, 2021. Under the agreement, goods from the Republic of Ireland and the UK will not be inspected at the Northern Ireland border. Instead, checks will take place at ports in Northern Ireland. The DUP believes the agreement creates an effective border between Northern Ireland and the UK.
DUP boycott is ill-advised
In February 2022, the DUP began a boycott of the Northern Ireland Parliament in Stormont, an action that continues to this day. On 27 February, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed a new agreement called the Windsor Framework, which aims to simplify trade between Northern Ireland and the UK. This gives Stormont “more say over EU rules and is popular with most Northern Irish parties”. However, the DUP opposes this framework and has yet to re-enter power sharing.
The deadlock in Northern Ireland politics looks set to continue. It has left a void in Northern Ireland’s political life, depriving people of a forum to discuss issues. Indeed, the DUP boycott of Stormont has made it harder for politicians to meet.
If political vacuums like this are not filled by elected politicians, they leave the door open for those with undemocratic agendas. As in the past, this space may be occupied by those who are willing to use murder to express themselves.
The DUP’s boycott was intended as leverage to change the Windsor framework. However, the boycott revealed deeper issues that, if left unaddressed, could lead to similar things happening again in the future. Obviously, the Windsor frame will not be modified. The UK and the EU have a lot of other business to do together, not least in the face of serious global threats.
The DUP must be aware that the requirements of the EU single market require some form of border. While these may alarm its supporters, some steps can be taken to appease DUP voters. So far, the DUP has not put concrete ideas in writing. Instead of waiting for others to do so, it can take the lead in developing practical recommendations, drawing on the local knowledge of its members.
This post-Brexit impasse has also raised questions about the meaning of Ulster unionism in the 21st century. Ulster is one of Ireland’s four traditional provinces and is made up of nine counties: six of which make up Northern Ireland and the remaining three in the Republic of Ireland. Unionists self-identify with Britain and are loyal to British institutions. However, this allegiance is to the kind of Britain that existed in the 1950s, not the diverse and highly globalized Britain that actually exists in 2023.
Just as Britain has changed, so has Northern Ireland. The DUP must focus its thinking on Northern Ireland’s young voters, who see themselves as neither unionists nor nationalists. These swing voters will determine the future of Northern Ireland. These swing voters may be looking for an entirely new system for Northern Ireland, one that is neither nationalist nor unionist. Unfortunately, this choice is presented in a binary and irreconcilable way in the Good Friday agreement, which may soon be replaced by social change.
What is the way forward?
Unionist leaders are better off serving the interests of their constituents by finding ways to convince non-unionists to settle for an arrangement in which all will feel safe and respected. It was a daunting task and one that challenged the unionist imagination. Realistic trade unionists know in their hearts that this is the only way out.
The DUP should not focus all its efforts on applicable EU commodity standards in Northern Ireland, but rather make broader intellectual, political and economic arguments. They should try to make arrangements that make unionists, nationalists and voters who are neither feel safe. To achieve this goal, unionism must present itself in a radically different way, emphasizing symbols that are acceptable to the entire community rather than symbols that exclude some.
This will require a huge infusion of confidence in trade unionism. It would be uncomfortable for the party base, but the base will never provide a majority for the DUP.
At the heart of the conflict is identity. Identity is not a simple idea. It is not just about politics, territory or sovereignty. My question is simple: can we create a common identity that all people in Northern Ireland share?
Identity, of course, includes history and aspects that make us proud. But, every day, we are writing new history. I believe that identity can be cultivated in two very different ways. It can be based on competition with another community, or it can be based on mutual achievement. The latter is the best way to establish a shared identity.
Forced to choose between the fundamentally contradictory desires to unite with Dublin or unite with London in the Northern Ireland agreement is not conducive to the establishment of a common identity. We must move away from this binary choice.
Parallel consent rules in parliament should change. Giving extra weight to the votes of members of the Legislative Assembly who have chosen one or the other of two conflicting aspirations is not the best way to protect minorities. In fact, it oppresses the few who choose the middle ground. This minority may even become the majority one day. The case for changing the parallel consent rules is getting stronger.
Creating shared identities is becoming increasingly important. Some good work can be done at the community level, but if the governance institutions are not functioning properly, it is difficult to share the results, at least at the political level.
As with the DUP, some nationalists may also be on a path that leads to frustration. With all their energies pouring into the polls for an alliance with the Republic of Ireland, they are creating a conflict they may not win. There are signs that Sinn Féin is starting to see this.Gerry Adams recently told from currency That “Irish Unity is not a 50% + 1 equation. Unionists also need to buy in. “
Adams made a welcome and important statement. Unfortunately, the Good Friday Agreement did not take this point of view into account. It provides for irrevocable Irish unity to be voted on a 50%+1 basis. It will be interesting to see what Sinn Féin and the leadership of the Social Democrats and Labor have to say about Adams’ ideas, which will require a rephrasing of the Good Friday agreement.
We must remember that the aim of this 1998 agreement was to bring reconciliation and trust to Northern Ireland. The spirit of this historic agreement is to bring peace and end trouble.
In the 1990s, symbolic gestures played a huge role in the peace process. In 1995, when I was Prime Minister of Ireland (as the Prime Minister of Ireland is called), I organized a memorial service at the War Memorial in Islandbridge. It commemorates the Irish who fought in British uniform in World War II. Sinn Féin has Tom Hartley as their representative, an important gesture.
Symbolic gestures still count. In 2018, DUP leader Arlene Foster attended the Gaelic Athletic Association’s Ulster football final between Donegal and Fermanagh, County Monaghan. Sport is also a dividing line in Northern Ireland. “I understand what I’m here for today, so I hope I’m having a good day,” Foster said. Needless to say, her gesture was important and powerful.
Perhaps when the local elections are over, the UK and Irish governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland should consider events and activities that foster reconciliation and thus create emotional space for political compromise. Once again these symbolic gestures are needed to bring peace to a divided and troubled land.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.