THERE’S a reason the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has been so laser-focused on the Good Friday Agreement. In his role as an EU Commissioner, he was responsible for the EU PEACE Programmes in Northern Ireland. As Commissioner for Regional Policy, his second Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland prioritised economic renewal, social integration, and cross-border co-operation, all supported by EU funding, including €531million in structural funds.
First published in The National, 1 March 2018.
This isn’t some suit who’s been handed a stack of notes and shoved into a new office. Barnier knows Ireland. He knows Irish politics well. That’s why the Irish border was included as an important issue in the first place, and why the EU27 position is identical to that of Ireland. When you’re part of the club, your teammates look out for you, and as today’s publication of the draft Withdrawal Agreement makes clear, the EU has Ireland’s back and will expect the UK to live up to what has been agreed.
Barnier and the EU’s position comes from the genuine concern of people who’ve seen how much hard work was needed to get Northern Ireland to the place it is, and aren’t about to let the UK ineptly use it as some kind of test case for a future customs relationship with the EU. Dublin has proven what independence in Europe means, solidarity in action.
For the first time in the Republic’s history Ireland has the upper hand in dealings with London because the other EU countries have their back.
The Good Friday Agreement is not just an internal document, it is part of the UK’s constitution, an international treaty that has guaranteed peace in Northern Ireland since 1998. The British Government, Irish Government, Northern Irish Government and representatives of the paramilitary groups finally met and replaced violence with power-sharing. It is an incredible achievement, few of us believed it would happen but it did, and it saved lives, and it bound the wounds of a deeply split and bleeding country. We still have to tread carefully because the wounds haven’t fully healed, but nobody seems to have told the Ultras, who either don’t understand or simply don’t care.
They’re undermining it for a reason, same as they are trashing the devolved settlements for Scotland and Wales. Just look at the latest nonsense coming from them. Owen Paterson, Conservative MP and David Cameron’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, retweets a Telegraph article arguing that the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use. Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP dismisses the GFA as “a bribe to two sets of hardliners.” Kate Hoey, Labour MP takes a break from photo ops with Nigel Farage to call the GFA “unsustainable” and accuse the Remainers as just using it to halt Brexit.
The reaction was one of disbelief that quickly turned to fury. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney angrily highlighted that “Talking down [the] Good Friday Agreement because it raises serious and genuine questions of those pursuing Brexit is not only irresponsible but reckless and potentially undermines the foundations of a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland that should never be taken for granted.” Now, Coveney is also the Deputy Taoiseach of Ireland, so I know who I’d bank on knowing more about the intricacies of the peace process.
The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by 71% of Northern Irish voters, and then by 94% in the constitutional referendum.
There’s your ‘will of the people’ right there, but it seems like the Ultras put more weight on the will of some people more than others.
Their reasons are transparent and grubby. The Good Friday Agreement scuppers their plans for a harder-than-hard Brexit, because it stops them from erecting a border across Ireland. There can be no hard border across Ireland, and that means Northern Ireland has to remain in the single market and the customs union. So the Ultras are throwing Northern Ireland to the wolves.
When they shout “sovereignty” and “will of the people”, they don’t mean you. They don’t mean the sovereignty of the Scottish people, or of Ireland, or the will of the people who for peace in Northern Ireland. They mean their own sovereignty, over you. The Good Friday Agreement could bring down Brexit, but we cannot allow Brexit to bring down the Good Friday Agreement.