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In pursuit of peace, the 1998 Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement embraced ‘constructive ambiguity’ on issues that were at the centre of conflict in Northern Ireland. By setting up a delicately balanced system of multilevel government, underpinned by political and constitutional guarantees, it enabled ongoing disagreements between nationalists and unionists to be managed by means of democracy, rather than violence.
Under Strand Three of the Agreement, institutions were set up to promote the ‘harmonious and mutually beneficial development’ of the ‘totality of relationships’ between the peoples and governments of Ireland and the UK, including its devolved administrations and Crown Dependencies. This so-called ‘east-west’ dimension was to have two elements with corresponding institutions: an intergovernmental one reflected in the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC) and an interjurisdictional one reflected in the British-Irish Council (BIC).
Prior to the UK’s referendum on EU membership, the ‘east-west’ relationship between the UK and Ireland had ‘never been better’. The success of the Queen's visit to Ireland in 2011 was the crowning glory of an historic process of incremental improvement of relations. Politically, the two governments had settled into a modus operandi whereby issues tended to be managed bilaterally and consensually and, for decades, the two states had been on complimentary trajectories through their joint participation in the ‘ever closer union’ project of European integration. The decision of the UK to withdraw from the EU, however, catalysed a paradigm shift in British-Irish relations.
Assessing the impact of Brexit
The impact of Brexit and the subsequent Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland on the intergovernmental aspect of east-west relations is somewhat paradoxical.
The Protocol is a legal text, agreed as part of the terms of withdrawal for the UK from the EU, which makes differentiated arrangements for Northern Ireland. By setting out measures to avoid the need for a hardening of the Ireland–Northern Ireland land border, the Protocol requires that new checks and controls are carried out on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, this is believed by many unionists and loyalists to be an affront to their British identity and a threat to the position of Northern Ireland within the UK.
The implementation of the Protocol has, so far, generated a concerning degree of political destabilisation in Northern Ireland. Anger over the Protocol was one of the causes of ten days of violent rioting in April 2021 at interface areas of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. Alongside public protests, a cross-party group of unionist politicians initiated judicial review proceedings against the UK government's decision to implement the Protocol which, they argued, was unlawful on the grounds of its incompatibility with provisions in the 1998 Agreement regarding cross-community consent.
Elsewhere, in the immediate aftermath of the UK's EU referendum, the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU led to renewed cooperation between the UK's devolved administrations, Crown Dependencies, and the Irish government via the BIC. However, the negotiation process put severe strain on diplomatic relations between the governments of the UK and Ireland, making greater cooperation via Strand Three politically more challenging. Furthermore, the legal implementation of Brexit has introduced a new route for the management of non-devolved Northern Ireland issues which were previously the sole or primary purview of the 1998 Agreement co-guarantor governments. The consequences of this latter impact are likely to become clearer in time.
The political ramifications of a paradigmatic shift and decline in relations between the co-guarantor governments of the Agreement, begotten by the Brexit process, are very likely to constrain bilateral relations and initiatives in the short to medium term. However, they may also lead to greater formalisation of British-Irish bilateralism, via official agreements or legal texts, as a counterbalance to the decline in diplomatic relations.
The new face of east-west
Following the negotiation of the Protocol, and the controversies surrounding its implementation, the language and concept of ‘east-west’ has taken on a new and more expansive guise.
After the Protocol came into effect, representatives started to use ‘east-west’ to refer to relations and arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a concept absent from the text of the 1998 Agreement. Although a linguistic rather than legalistic point of analysis, this new discursive face of ‘east-west’ relations is both symbolically important and also notable for what it suggests about the fissures that have emerged in UK political unionism as a consequence of Brexit and the Protocol.
For Northern Ireland unionist politicians, the new concept of ‘east-west’ tends to be employed in the course of critiques about the impact of implementing the Protocol on intra-UK trade and is also often linked to the idea of destabilisation, or failure, of the 1998 Agreement architecture. Such usage indicates that this discursive shift arises out of anger and a sense of betrayal over the differentiation of Northern Ireland in the Protocol.
Arguably, therefore, while only a relatively minor change in the use of a term that is well-established in political lexicons, the development of the new face of ‘east-west’ relations is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the political typography of the UK that may prove to be one of the most significant of all Brexit impacts.