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25/01/2019 09:33 GMT | Updated 25/01/2019 09:33 GMT

We Must Not Let The Tories Wreck The Good Friday Agreement

The idea of tampering with a ground-breaking peace deal to get May off the hook on Brexit is maddening and ominous in equal measure

John Keeble via Getty Images

For twenty years since it was first signed - after years of pain-staking negotiation and political choreography - the Good Friday Agreement has been sacrosanct in British and Irish politics. For good reason. 

A landmark exercise in conflict resolution that ended three decades of the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ - which saw the terrible loss of 3,600 lives - the agreement stands a shining example of the power of persuasion, persistence and practical politics.

But there are worrying signs this settlement – the bedrock of 20 years of peace and incremental progress – is fraying at the edges.

Some of the damage has been caused by the collapse of power-sharing two years ago between Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, which, as the two largest parties, are obliged under the term of the agreement to share power in a cross-community executive.

But a lot of the blame lies at Westminster. The Tories have taken their eye off the ball, failing to nurture the settlement over much of the past decade before making matters worse with their bungling over Brexit. 

Earlier this week, the Daily Telegraph splashed with the headline: ‘PM’s Plan B: Good Friday deal could be rewritten.’ The paper reported that ministers hoped that by adding text to the agreement promising no hard border they would buy off the Irish Government and avoid ‘having to commit the UK to the backstop.’

The idea that the agreement can be tampered with, solely in order to get Theresa May off the hook over Brexit, is maddening and ominous in equal measure. Although quickly disowned, the story has plausibility when you consider the hash ministers have made dealing with the backstop - the guarantee that Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the single market until other arrangements are made, ensuring no hard border in the island of Ireland.

An issue that merited little consideration during the Brexit referendum - and didn’t seem to figure in the Government’s strategy for months after the result - now risks scuppering any hope of an orderly exit from the EU.

Hardly surprising given the quality of political leadership on offer. The current Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, freely admitted that on being appointed, she didn’t understand the very basics of the role, like the fact Irish nationalistsdidn’t generally vote for unionists, and vice versa.

Her predecessor, James Brokenshire, saw the power-sharing structures collapse on his watch, seemingly oblivious to the rising tensions over the Democratic Unionists’ mishandling of a renewable energy scheme that has wracked-up a liability for the taxpayer running into hundreds of millions of pounds (and has required the establishment of a judge-led inquiry to investigate how it happened).

The 310-mile border dividing Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic is effectively non-existent, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement. A no deal Brexit risks re-imposing one, reawakening all the grim symbolism for people who are glad to leave the horrors of the troubles behind. 

For Tory Brexiteers, these concerns don’t appear to register.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all Michael Gove opposed the Good Friday Agreement in principle, arguing instead for a beefed-up shoot-to-kill policy to keep the war with the IRA going.

David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, was so ignorant of Irish affairs that he blamed Sinn Fein and a change of Irish government for the slow progress in the Brexit negotiations, oblivious to the fact that the government had not in fact changed

And before Christmas, an unnamed Tory MP told a BBC journalist that the Irish should ‘know their place’ and fall into line over Brexit, with all the pomposity and disregard of an imperial governor. 

To say that the Conservatives have a chequered past on Irish affairs is to put it mildly.

While the peace process started in earnest under John Major in the early 1990s, the heavy lifting had in fact been done by figures like John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) whose talks with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams over a period of several years paved the way for the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

At the time, Major’s parliamentary majority was dwindling away, so he did a deal with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists to prop up his administration which slowed progress and saw the collapse of the IRA ceasefire. It wasn’t until Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 that things were put back together. A year later, in April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

David Cameron rightly earned plaudits for the manner of his response to the publication of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, memorably stating the killings in 1972 of 14 civil rights demonstrators in Derry by British paratroopers were “unjustified and unjustifiable.”  

However, he later reneged on a judicial inquiry into the notorious murder of high-profile Catholic solicitor, Pat Finucane, murdered by loyalists with what is widely believed to be the connivance of British security services. 

Mixed though her predecessors’ records are (again, to put it mildly), Theresa May risks being remembered as the Prime Minister who actively undermined the Good Friday Agreement settlement in a desperate bid to satisfy her Brexiteer hardliners and the ten Democratic Unionists who prop her up in the House of Commons.

Rather than agree to a backstop arrangement, she casually risks crashing out of the EU without a deal that will not only devastate Northern Ireland’s fragile economy but result in a hard border and years of political turmoil.

By way of illustration, the Ulster Farmers’ Union warned this week that half of Northern Ireland’s sheep farmers could be put out of business if there’s no deal.

As the denouement to the Brexit farrago reaches fever pitch, voices across British and Irish politics need to speak out and tell Theresa May that she needs to rule out a hard border and accept the pragmatic solution on the backstop.

And its hands off the Good Friday Agreement at all costs.