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With friends like these

Michel Barnier, the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, greets Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at an all All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dundalk, Ireland, April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

I spent my childhood watching reports from Northern Ireland about bombings, punishment beating and prisoners on hunger strike. Most nights the BBC news would have something about some latest horror. The people living in Northern Ireland suffered more than anyone else. It didn’t matter who you were. There was the daily possibility of being killed or maimed by someone who wanted to solve a political issue using violence.

I remember that there was some fear that the conflict might spread to Scotland. After all quite a large number of people in various parts of Scotland sympathised with the aims of the IRA. But for the most part we observed from far away.

Every now and again we discovered that the IRA had spread to Guildford or Brighton or Manchester, but we never had the day to day fear that people must have felt in Belfast.

I remember in the end becoming rather immune to the whole thing. I took it for granted that these things would happen every now and again. I barely paid attention. A routine developed. Politicians would condemn using a set formula of words and then we all just waited for the next bombing. Even in Northern Ireland the chances of being killed or wounded were small. In other parts of the UK they were very small indeed. The IRA were like a disease that was hard to catch, but impossible to cure. There wasn’t any point worrying about them.

And then it ended. Who won?

I’d like to think Northern Ireland won. The situation isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was. Northern Ireland rarely appears on the BBC news anymore and if it does, the story, for the most part, is the same sort of story that might be told in any other part of the UK. One or other of the Northern Irish political parties is arguing about something. There has been some particularly bad weather or there has been some sort of accident. Sometimes there is even good news.

We made peace. It’s not perfect, but it has more or less lasted since 1997. The thing with peace that is always tricky is that you have to make it with your enemy. There is no point trying to make it with anyone else. But this, of course, meant that British politicians didn’t quite mean what they said when they stated so often that they would never negotiate with terrorists. We did negotiate with them, then we set them free and then we allowed them to become elected politicians. We also had to make concessions. The IRA gave up their campaign of violence. The British in return gave them the Belfast Agreement (1998) commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement. It was right that we did so, but let’s not pretend. It was the reward that the IRA got for their decades of bombing. The British signed the agreement so that this bombing would stop for ever.

There is therefore something very dubious about using this agreement years later to try to gain a political advantage. But suddenly ever since the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 I kept hearing various people going on about the Good Friday Agreement. The phrase had almost dropped from my memory. What on earth had that to do with Brexit?

Over time it became clear. The EU and the Irish Government wanted to use the Belfast Agreement as a way to put pressure on the British Government. This immediately struck me as quite outrageous. How dare they use a peace treaty that we signed so that the UK could avoid terrorist attacks to gain an advantage in the Brexit negotiations? Were these to be the fruits of the long IRA bombing campaign? Did the Republic of Ireland really want to inch closer to a united Ireland because Britain naturally didn’t want any more of our people to be killed by Irish terrorists? I thought this stank morally. But then far too many of those who wanted a united Ireland were always willing to sympathise with the aims of the IRA even if they sometime tut tutted at their methods.

I kept hearing from Remain supporters in the UK and from people in the Republic of Ireland that the Belfast Agreement forbade there being a hard border in Ireland and that it meant that it limited the UK’s room for manoeuvre in leaving the EU. This kept being repeated so often that it became a sort of orthodoxy. It’s also complete and utter nonsense.

I have never read so much interpretation about a document that demonstrates so ably that the interpreters have never in fact read it.

The Belfast Agreement is quite an easy read, though it is rather dull. It can be found here.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement

What is it about?

Firstly it states that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland accept that the status of Northern Ireland must be determined democratically. The people who will determine that future are those living in Northern Ireland. So if Northern Ireland were ever to unite with the Republic this could only happen after a vote.

There is next a section on setting up an assembly in Northern Ireland, then a section on setting up a North/South Ministerial Council and also a section on setting up a British Irish Council. There is quite a lot about human rights, cross border cooperation, reconciliation, decommissioning and prisoners but not once is there any mention about border controls. The actual border between Northern Ireland and the Republic or its status in fact is not mentioned at all.

Even in the section dealing with “Economic, social and cultural issues” there is not a thing about trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is no mention of customs, or duties. In fact none of the things that have been debated endlessly about the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland are anywhere mentioned in the Belfast Agreement.

The only limit to the UK’s sovereignty with regard to Northern Ireland is that we have promised to allow the Northern Irish people to decide if they wish to stay in the UK or join the Republic. Until that point we would be free to build a wall and dig a moat. The Republic of Ireland has no more right to demand that the border be kept open than any other nation state has that right.

The UK knows that most people in Northern Ireland want an open border. It is convenient and it is far better than neighbouring countries have friendly relations and open borders. For this reason we have promised to keep the border open.

But the Belfast Agreement in no way limits Brexit. It in no way changes the fact that the border in Ireland is an international border. If as a consequence of its EU membership the Republic of Ireland finds it impossible to remain in the Common Travel Area or if it finds itself forced to collect tariffs and regulate the movement of people, then that is a problem for the Republic not for us.  It could be resolved by deciding to leave the EU also.  But that is an issue for the Republic. It is not the UK’s business.

There is nothing in the Belfast Agreement to prevent friendly relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland continuing after Brexit. The various councils and cross border cooperation would continue even if the border were manned. After all prior to Schengen almost everywhere in the EU had a manned borders. Owing to the crisis over migration there are quite a few manned borders springing up again in the EU. But these countries still cooperate and are friendly and trade freely with each other.

It becomes ever more obvious that the EU and the Irish Republic are attempting to use Brexit to bring about a united Ireland. This is why they continually wish to treat Northern Ireland differently from the other parts of the UK and why they want a border to run through the Irish Sea. So what the IRA couldn’t achieve by bombs the EU and the Irish Republic wish to achieve by means of issues they pretend are contained in the Belfast Agreement. Meanwhile the Remainers cheer them on. With friends like these who needs terrorists?

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/07/with-friends-like-these.html 

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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