Tensions here in Northern Ireland have been steadily growing since the establishment of the Irish sea border at the start of January. Weeks of dangerous political rhetoric have now resulted in loyalist paramilitary organisations withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement, leading many to worry Northern Ireland’s hard-fought-for peace may yet be another casualty of Brexit.
Leaving the European Union was always going to be difficult for Northern Ireland. Our region is the only section of the United Kingdom to share a land border with the EU, and importantly the only part of the UK protected by the Good Friday Agreement.
The agreement remains one of the greatest political achievements of the last century. At its inception, the interventions of the Irish, British, and United States governments saw the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties – alongside the people of this island – convinced to take a profound leap of faith.
The resulting peace accord brought the schematics for peace to a region fractured by decades of violence and conflict and marked the beginning – not the end – of a process of reconciliation. The agreement established a raft of newly-formed institutions, all of which flourished under the protective blanket of EU law and embedded the principles of equality, parity of esteem, and mutual respect between the two main communities in the North.
While the people of Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement, they voted against Brexit – a fitting reflection of the territory’s long-held aspiration toward amicability between the two regions.
Those who believed that Brexit could be rolled out in Northern Ireland in the same manner as the rest of the UK have failed to recognise that Northern Ireland was, and still remains, a place apart.
An entire generation has now grown up under the protections granted by the internationally binding peace accord – they and many more want to see subsequent generations continue to benefit from those same safeguards.
Much of the unionist anger is being levied against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which set out how Brexit will be put into action in Northern Ireland. But the protocol isn’t the problem: Brexit itself is.
The protocol was designed to recognise the unique situation in Northern Ireland, negotiated with the purpose of protecting the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring there’s no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The Northern Ireland protocol is not the cause but the effect of Brexit on this region. Those who believed that Brexit could be rolled out in Northern Ireland in the same manner as the rest of the UK have failed to recognise that Northern Ireland was, and still remains, a place apart.
The DUP are leading much of the pushback against the Northern Ireland Protocol, using their considerable resources and offices of power to do so. The party was also the only main political party to campaign for Brexit in Northern Ireland, and unsurprisingly the only main party to campaign against the Good Friday Agreement. As we scramble to provide stability for this region, the leaders of the DUP have reportedly been meeting with the very loyalist paramilitary groups that have now withdrawn support for the Good Friday Agreement.
That the party has sought to shield itself behind a treaty it never signed nor supported as a means to remove a protocol designed to protect said agreement should, at best, give rise to concern. Under the cover of conscientiousness surrounding trade and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom lies a more duplicitous political agenda.
This isn’t about the people of Northern Ireland or protecting the peace process. It’s about achieving an unattainable version of Brexit.
There are many reasons beyond those exemplified by the Good Friday Agreement as to why the establishment of a hard border on the island of Ireland needs to be resisted. There are over 300 crossings between the North and the South, and as it stands the existing border runs through people’s gardens, through their homes, and through parishes. Many people cross the border every day for work, for school, or even to do their daily shop.
But more than these unavoidable tangible roadblocks, any return to a hard border on the island of Ireland brings along with it a dangerous psychological effect: the fear that Northern Ireland is regressing back to the days of armed borders, military infrastructure, and violence. Those advocating for a hard border on the island of Ireland, and weaponising the fears of one community, should be transparent about what it is that they truly hope to achieve.
The unionist community is being sold a lie. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland hasn’t changed and the Northern Ireland Protocol remains legally binding, having been negotiated, endorsed, and voted through by Boris Johnson’s government – with the backing of the notoriously hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t about the people of Northern Ireland or protecting the peace process. It’s about achieving an unattainable version of Brexit – one that the people of Northern Ireland never signed up to in the first place.
Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmandJDeSouza