At long last, it would appear as if some progress has been made on the British-Irish border. However, it’s a strange sort of progress. A strange sort of progress, precisely because peace in Northern Ireland has once again been absent from the discussion in any real sense. Perhaps in the world of realpolitik, free trade agreements always do win-out over peace agreements. Yet none of this can explain why Brexiteers have had such difficulty in actively affirming and supporting the Good Friday Agreement.
What is behind this difficulty, and what really colours this “progress”, is something fundamental to the project of Brexit. Brexiteers cannot support the GFA precisely because it is anathema to what Brexit is. It is not that they are against peace in Northern Ireland nor even that they are against specific measures of the treaty itself. Rather Brexit and the GFA disagree on what sovereignty is. Or, rather, even more profoundly, they disagree on whether sovereignty is an idea at all.
As a project, Brexit aims to unify power and control in one source: the sovereign state. This effort to create a form of extreme sovereignty is not presented as ideological, but simply realistic. For Brexiteers, “sovereignty” is simply a fact, a given. It is not an idea and it requires no interpretation. Just as Brexit means Brexit, sovereignty means sovereignty. We need to organise and distribute power in this way, because, as Margaret Thatcher would say, there is no alternative.
The GFA puts forward a radically different view of sovereignty. It carries with it a conception of sovereignty as an idea. The GFA marks a point whereby new forms of living-together needed to be created and as such new forms of sovereignty. It is the very explicit nature of this which challenges Brexit. We can see this appear in at least three ways in the agreement:
The Good Friday Agreement gives citizens of Northern Ireland the right to identify legally as a British, Irish or both. This was a fundamental part of the agreement and represents one of its most innovative, particularly with regards sovereignty. In divorcing the link between where you are born and what you identify as, this created a distance between the power of sovereignty and its citizens. In one way or another, sovereign power has historically sought to determine the identities of its subjects. The GFA re-envisaged this: sovereign power may still have the right to claim you as a citizen, but it does not have the right to determine your identity, the way you view yourself or the way you lead your life.
The second important element of the GFA was power-sharing. The government of Northern Ireland is not a product of an individual “People” instead its power is limited and shared across communities. It is not because there is a nationalist or unionist majority elected that they hold executive power. People can feel relatively comfortable with the idea that states should have limitations on their power; it is slightly more difficult for people to accept that the People themselves should have a limit. What the GFA achieves is the explicit articulation of this within a foundational document. It is not that limits are placed on a pre-established sovereign power. Rather, instead, that sovereign power itself is constructed anew from principles of democratic will, justice and equality.
The third point is perhaps the least unique but perhaps the most pertinent right now. The GFA obliged the British government to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into its own national law. In so doing, it distances the sovereign from justice, but more than this, it places the origins of this justice and these rights as outside of the sovereign altogether. In this sense, the agreement forms part of an international structure that distinctly aims to transcend the power and control of state sovereignty.
In all these cases, there are certainly limits; however, as a practical effort to invent different forms of liveable sovereignty, the treaty marked a moment where the structure of power in a society was distinctively re-invented.
And it is not just a question of what has already been invented, but what could be invented. Brexiteers are not simply unnerved by what the GFA is, but what this way of thinking about sovereignty might inspire elsewhere. “Progress” then, and the security of the Good Friday Agreement, cannot be measured by the customs union. Defending the Good Friday Agreement is not about defending institutions. It is about affirming the core principle of this agreement: that we can re-think, re-imagine and re-invent the way power and sovereignty operate in society.
*Cillian Ó Fathaigh is doing a PhD in Contemporary French Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His thesis includes a chapter on the philosophy of sovereignty.