Across Western democracies in recent years, the politics of ideology, fear, hope and feeling have dominated the debate. Parties have retreated from the centre-ground and in increasingly polarised times, conciliation and realism are missing from much of the political discourse.
On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, that shift is threatening the success of the project that brought comparative peace to Northern Ireland. Today, the terms of that historic agreement are on vulnerable ground, with Brexit uncertainty compounding the failures of a stubbornly partisan Assembly in Stormont.
The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph of political compromise over the bitter identity politics that had gripped the region for so long. When the agreement was ratified by a referendum in May 1998, the people of Northern Ireland voted with their heads, choosing tangible outcomes over tribal concerns.
Now, rationality has increasingly ceded ground to more idealistic politics. In Northern Ireland in particular, this retreat from rationality threatens to destabilise the core foundations on which the Good Friday Agreement is built.
This threat can be felt most starkly at the 275 border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic, where communities wait to learn how Brexit will affect their ability to live and work.
Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland once again want a result that is workable and keeps disruption from the region. With the possibility of remaining in the Customs Union or Single Market ruled out by Theresa May, an Ipsos MORI poll last September revealed support in Northern Ireland for free movement across the Irish border and the introduction of border controls between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. Even among unionists, there was support (56%) for a border in the Irish Sea.
Unfortunately, 1998’s politics of compromise is ancient history, and the idea of prioritising fact over feeling is out of vogue. Bound by the ongoing negotiations and the DUP’s crutch for its majority, the Government continues to fudge the border question, with talk of technological solutions providing nothing but fanciful distractions from an unworkable reality.
Meanwhile, the Northern Irish public waits for the formation of a working Power Sharing Executive, some 15 months after the last coalition dissolved. Red lines on the use of the Irish language and the rights of same-sex couples reflect the global shift towards polarisation, and hark back to the division that dominated prior to 1998.
As the British government pursues political expediency over practicality and Stormont continues to sit empty, we can see the fundamental tenets of the Good Friday are at risk. The spirit of the agreement has been cast aside and the rational, painstaking compromise that brought it to bear is absent either side of the Irish Sea.
Today’s brand of divisive politics, promulgated during the Brexit campaign and again during Trump’s election, could feel all too familiar for the people of Northern Ireland. As SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said in his speech to conference at the weekend, “our only focus now should be getting back to the Good Friday Agreement”.
It is incumbent on the British, Irish and Northern Irish governments to complete that task, and protect the sanctity and spirit of the agreement as they do so.