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The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) is under threat, while the UK's withdrawal from the EU poses major challenges for maintaining peace in Northern Ireland (NI). The contributions to a new special collection examine key elements of the post-Brexit reality, with a particular focus on NI and the future of the intergovernmental bodies established by the B/GFA.
In reimagining citizenship and the constitutional future of the UK, the progressive tradition across Ireland and the UK has provided vital impetus for the NI peace process. This has helped to redefine shared understandings of identity, borders, and belonging. That sustained effort culminated in the 1998 GFA which brokered peace between the nationalist and unionist communities. It established the power-sharing executive in Belfast alongside several intergovernmental bodies connecting administrations on these islands.
Today, the Brexit process exposes critical ambiguities that have shaped Irish/UK relations since the early 1970s. Above all, the UK's departure from the EU has destabilised the political and social context in NI. Sporadic rioting and violence have erupted there in recent years. The refusal of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to nominate a Deputy First Minister following the 2022 NI Assembly elections, apparently because of the NI Protocol, has fuelled further tensions.
EU, NI, & GFA: Relations Intertwined
The B/GFA gives a role to the UK and Irish governments in governing NI, giving legitimate voice to both Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism. The ratification of the B/GFA in referendums in both NI and the Republic ended ‘the Troubles’, which killed around 3,500 people by 1998. The EU was a key actor in the unfolding peace process, seeking to play ‘honest broker’ while using European funding to incentivise cross-community cooperation. EU membership facilitated diplomatic and political ties across Britain and Ireland.
Post-Brexit arrangements formalised between EU negotiators and the UK government in December 2020 acknowledged the special status of NI. Prime Ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson were belatedly compelled to acknowledge that a solution which preserved the B/GFA was vital for the perceived success of the Brexit negotiations. Under the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, NI was conceived as a ‘hybrid state’, a constituent part of the UK that retained economic and constitutional ties to Europe by remaining in the EU single market and customs union. There is no equivalent territorial arrangement elsewhere in the EU.
Brexit has created political volatility with long-term consequences exposing gaps within the original Agreement. The second and third strands of the Agreement, dealing with north/south and east/west relations respectively, have been improperly deployed and their potential not yet realised. Ultimately, confronting the unresolved issues arising from the Brexit process requires a recommitment by all governments involved with NI to ‘make it work’. Potential remains to draw on existing channels to foster understanding and dialogue, like the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. This is important given the loss of opportunities for formal and informal exchanges between British and Irish officials through the EU following the UK's withdrawal.
Focussing on the GFA's third strand, east-west institutions were established to promote the ‘harmonious and mutually beneficial development’ between the peoples and governments of Ireland and the UK. Strand 3 institutions intended to provide forums for intergovernmental cooperation on ‘non-devolved Northern Ireland matters’ and exchange of information and cooperation ‘on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the relevant administrations’.
But nowhere in the GFA is the concept of ‘east-west’ used to refer to relations between NI and Great Britain. Even so, because of Brexit and amid great controversy over the territorial implications of the NI Protocol, relations between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (GB–NI) have been reframed in ‘east-west’ terms. The phrase ‘east-west’ underlines the important, but under-discussed, impact of Brexit on the political and constitutional landscape of the UK and Ireland. The stability of the institutions is an additional indicator of the profound impact Brexit has on relations across ‘these islands’. The new face of ‘east-west’ relations shows a fundament shift due to Brexit.
Unionism & Republicanism Diluted: The Rise of the Alliance
The future constitutional status of the territory will be shaped by the emerging dynamic between ‘old’ and ‘new’ political identities. The ‘old’ identities conceived political outcomes as defined by nationalism/republicanism and unionism/loyalism. Today, growing numbers of NI citizens identify exclusively as neither unionist nor nationalist, undermining the traditional ‘sectarian headcount’ model used since NI’s inception. Indeed, recent elections indicate that more pluralistic ‘new’ political identities are gaining ground at the expense of traditional alignments. Emerging non-aligned voters are likely to have a decisive impact on any border poll on Irish unification.
Brexit has contributed to, and coincided with, major alterations in the electoral landscape of NI. That includes the rise of the political centre-ground and the emergence of the Alliance Party. Notably, unlike the unionist parties in NI, the willingness of the Alliance to engage with the Irish government and to enter into all-island dialogue goes beyond a focus on the constitutional question. Alliance's approach to the Irish unity debate is more open and flexible than that of most unionists. Although ‘nationalism versus unionism’ remains consequential in NI, its significance is being gradually eroded by the rise of the middle-ground which will have notable ongoing repercussions for NI's future.
The Irish government has a ‘Shared Ireland’ strategy. Neale Richmond (Member of the Dáil and former chair of the Seanad Special Brexit Committee) explains this strategy, offering his views about how policy makers and citizens should start to plan for a new Ireland. After addressing the key challenges and opportunities relating to the economy, diplomacy, the structure of an all-Ireland polity, the legal system, education, infrastructure, healthcare, and national and religious symbols, Richmond considers the practical issues that ought to be debated in advance of any border poll. He concludes by emphasising the importance of shared dialogue about the future constitutional arrangements on these islands. The fundamental principles of cooperation and power sharing at the core of the B/GFA must be retained.