‘Ireland is a little land in which the great questions of politics, morality and humanity are thrashed out.’
Not the words of an eloquent Brexit watcher, but Gustave de Beaumont, friend and collaborator of Alexis de Tocqueville, in 1839. Touring the island, de Beaumont found a troubled country stunted by religious quarrels, a corrupt aristocracy and gross inequality. These themes he thought made Ireland a model of the paramount struggle of the time: democratisation.
In 2018, the questions are not quite the same, but they are still great and they still emanate from Ireland’s relationship with its neighbour to the east. Brexit had a nemesis from the start, another referendum-ratified political idea with a very different vision of transnational relations, sovereignty and identity.
The Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed in Ireland. Brexit, as the Irish government repeats, was not – unasked-for by southerners and rejected by a majority of northerners. But they are to bear the consequences of a project born and driven in England.
De Beaumont might nod in recognition. He laid the blame for all of Ireland’s travails squarely on London: ‘By its fatal destiny, [Ireland] has been thrown into the ocean near England, to which it seems linked by the same bonds that unite the slave to the master’. It’s an elegant statement of two centuries of Irish republican thought. But for most people in Ireland, the notion that their country suffers from geography-ordained domination by Britain had, in the early twenty-first century, become an anachronism.
Before Brexit, British-Irish relations were the warmest they had ever been. This was showcased in a hugely successful, gracious visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth in 2011.
The partnership of London and Dublin was probably the greatest single factor in ending the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. Despite being implicated on opposing sides, the UK and Irish states realised that ‘the Troubles’ was a shared problem requiring a joint solution. After months of negotiations chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell, that solution was finally agreed in Belfast on 10 April 1998, Good Friday.
The Agreement provided for power-sharing in Northern Ireland and co-operation between the north and south of Ireland. Britain and Ireland pledged to develop ‘the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’. Beneath the torturous diplomatic micro-steps of the peace process, the transformation of the conflict was aided by deeper currents – towards secularisation and liberalisation. Geo-political winds were also fair – the end of the Cold War, European integration, and the final de-legitimisation of Irish militancy wrought by 9/11.
The possibility that Brexit will re-impose a ‘hard’ border appears to be boosting support for Irish unity, churning the consensus that underpinned the settlement of the last twenty years
All of this appeared to favour an unbendable trajectory towards increasing interdependence – Catholic-Protestant, north-south and British-Irish. Then came Brexit.
Its precise impact on the peace process was then (is yet) unknown, but purported to be both bafflingly technical and powerfully psycho-symbolic, threatening the most compelling showpiece of the peace: the conspicuously invisible Irish border. After 1998, ease of movement and business made Ireland feel more united, regardless of the reality of separate jurisdictions. For many northern Irish nationalists who aspired to a unified island state, this was enough.
Now, the possibility that Brexit will re-impose a ‘hard’ border – bureaucratic hassle and travel disruption – appears to be boosting support for Irish unity, churning the consensus that underpinned the settlement of the last twenty years. And so the great question is thrashed out, and the ‘little land’ and the rural twists of its border draw the attention of a continent.
Yet none of this is to suggest that, pre-Brexit, the peace process had reached a culmination. The years after 1998 were hampered by political crises, electoral polarisation and at times, street unrest. Unrelenting skirmishes over the implementation and meaning of the Agreement revealed – if it really needed revealing – that the conflict had been as much about tribal dignity and collective hurt, as national self-determination.
Indeed, since January 2017, there has been no power-sharing government in Belfast due to a break down in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin. This, plus Brexit – enthusiastically supported by the DUP which is propping up Theresa May’s embattled government at Westminster – means that the Agreement hangs in the balance.
This strips the celebratory gloss from events planned to mark the twentieth anniversary. It also dents Ireland’s acquired reputation as another kind of international ‘model’: of peace-making. Perhaps the anniversary will reignite the bold imagination and risk-taking leadership that forged the Agreement.
In any case, the occasion should be an opportunity for appreciation of the distance travelled in Northern Ireland, and the dire consequences of a reverse course.
Dr David Mitchell is Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin