The unravelling of the peace process in Ireland is not a price worth paying for Brexit

[Editor’s note: This article was written before the announcement on Tuesday evening that UK and EU negotiators have finally reached an draft agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. At the time of publishing this blog the text of the draft agreement had not been published, although it is thought to include a ’backstop’ that will keep Northern Ireland tightly locked to European trade rules until another means of frictionless trade is agreed upon. The draft text still needs be signed-off by Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet before being voted on in Parliament this December, but several senior Conservative party members and Arlene Foster of Northern Ireland’s DUP have already said they will not back the deal.]

I grew up in South Armagh in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. One of my earliest memories is seeing a neighbour get shot. Another is of narrowly avoiding a culvert bomb set by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) to attack the British Army.

The brother of a classmate at primary school was murdered by the SAS (the British Army’s special forces unit). Ten years ago, I discovered that a group of Loyalist (a supporter of union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland) paramilitaries had planned, in reprisal for an IRA atrocity, to attack the primary school that I attended to kill all the children and teachers. The plan was eventually vetoed: some things were just too much of a war crime for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

Now that the Troubles are taking on the aspect of history, it is too easy to forget how ghastly they truly were. But little of this is ever far from my mind and I have been reflecting on this all of late, particularly with the UK, like a racist drunk blundering towards the pub door, seeking exit from the European Union with little plan other than, it seems, a visceral desire to keep ‘foreigners’ out.

The Troubles were marked in one aspect by considerable division within the Nationalist community (which calls for the unification of Ireland) of the North. On one hand there were those who adhered to a non-violent approach inspired by Martin Luther King and coalescing around the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the sister party of both British and Irish Labour.

On the other hand, there were those who found violence a justifiable response to the Partition of Ireland and hence were supportive of the IRA. What united both of these political strands, particularly in the border areas such as South Armagh, was a detestation of partition itself, which brought physical division to communities, military occupation and conflict. Hence after two years of incompetent negotiation on the part of the UK and mere months before the UK is meant to leave the EU, Brexit still holds the threat of the reintroduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland and with that a fundamental threat to Ireland’s peace.

Europe and the Good Friday Agreement

Future historians will argue over the role that the IRA’s fratricidal campaign, or Britain’s changing economic and geopolitical priorities, played in getting everyone around the negotiating table. But the fact that there was a negotiating table to be got around was the result of lonely, patient political action under the most horrendous of circumstances by the SDLP, and steady diplomatic endeavour by successive Irish governments.

What is blatantly obvious from the speeches and writings of SDLP leader John Hume during this period, is that the foundations of those diplomatic and political efforts were European.

It was the shared membership of the European Union that provided a new framework between the UK and Ireland that could allow for vital new perspectives on the relationships between the islands of Britain and Ireland, and the communities of these islands. And it was these new perspectives that ultimately brought about the ‘three-stranded’ process that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The peace that the Good Friday Agreement brought was not inevitable. It was the result of difficult choices and painful compromises to establish a constitutional framework that provided the possibility of difference being settled by argument and negotiation instead of violence. Most people in these islands are grateful for the end to the bloodshed that brought.

But an increasing number of proponents of Brexit seem to have decided that the end of peace in Ireland is a price worth paying for their fantasies of renewed imperial glory for England. They have declared as ‘red lines’ that Brexit must include the UK’s departure from both the Single Market and Customs Union, the mechanisms that have made an invisible border in Ireland possible. They have further declared it inconceivable that there should be any customs checks in the Irish Sea, which would also avoid a border in Ireland, because Prime Minster Theresa May is in thrall to the votes of the far-Right Democratic Unionist Party, who have declared this unacceptable. Consequently, the British government now seems desperate to renege on the written commitments they have already given to the EU to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

So, Brexit now places the basis of the Irish peace settlement in the balance with the very real risk that it could lead to a re-partitioning of Ireland with a hard, Brexit-imposed border to satisfy these ‘red-lines’ that the UK government has chosen to demand with little concern for their potential impact.

Northern Ireland? ‘Not our problem’

Some Brexiters, such as the supercilious Michael Gove, a current UK cabinet minister, have long been contemptuous of Irish peace. Others including the incoherent but indulged backbenchers Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg have sought to dismiss the importance of the issue just as it seems to threaten to scuttle their neo-colonial fantasies. In this they are not alone. In the Future of England study, published on 2 Oct 2018, 83 per cent of leave voters and 73 per cent of Conservative voters concurred with the proposition “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole has pointed out this “expresses a deep belief that Northern Ireland is not” the responsibility of the English.

These attitudes go a long way to explain why, aside from an admirable report by the British House of Lords on the Irish implications of Brexit, UK politicians and media have been so glib about the risks posed to Irish society by Brexit.

The British Labour party is not immune to this and seem caught up in a laughable fantasy of a coming ‘People’s Brexit’ that will deliver the dream of “socialism in one country”. Their vision, determinedly downplaying the economic consequences of Brexit, is every bit as ludicrous as that of the Tories.

And in spite of the supposed pro-Irish convictions of the Labour leaders Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, their public utterances give little reassurances that the foundations of Irish peace are in any way close to the top of their priority list.

Both Labour and Conservative leaderships currently seem unrooted in either geopolitical or economic reality. Both present the ultimate prospect of a Little England politically and economically separated from our fellow Europeans, assured of being the junior party in any trade deals the UK finally manages to negotiate unless, perhaps, it’s with New Zealand.

In his poem, Easter 1916, the Irish poet WB Yeats wondered, in relation to the future well-being of Ireland, if “England may keep faith/ For all that is done and said.”

The shenanigans of the British government in their Brexit negotiations with the EU do now suggest a rather definitive answer to Yeats’ question. On its own, England won’t ever keep faith with Ireland. Ireland’s interests, Ireland’s peace, will always be subordinate to English prejudices and xenophobia. The future peace and prosperity of Ireland, therefore, is dependent on the solidarity of the EU 27 refusing to accept any more of England’s neo-colonial nonsense.