A break in the UK

22 years after the referendum approving the Good Friday Agreement: where are we at?

On May 22, marks the 22-year anniversary of the Referendum that approved the Good Friday Agreement, ending the long-lasting sectarian violence that disrupted Northern Ireland for decades.

The past

The history of Northern Ireland is a troubled one: Northern Ireland was born after the Anglo-Irish War (1919–1921), when the newly founded Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom signed a treaty that recognised the new “Irish Free State” from which the six northern counties with a protestant majority were excluded. Northern Ireland was given a local government (based in Stormont) and a fragile peace between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom was reached. In the following years Ireland cut economic ties with the Crown (the famous slogan “Burn everything British but their coal” sums the situation up rather accurately), while Northern Ireland was having issues concerning “gerrymandering” and the abolition of “proportional representation” as protestants looked to keep supremacy over the region both demographically and politically: the division between the “two Irelands” could not have been steeper.

The “Irish Question” was however far from being solved as tension grew from both sides of the border. When “The Troubles” started to get violent in the ’60s, Northern Ireland saw one of its darkest moments: up to this point, segregation between the protestant majority and the substantial catholic minority as well as consolidated institutional discrimination had been normalised. The ’60s saw a rise in civil rights movements across NI and this was seen by protestant loyalists as the facade of a bigger political organisation controlled by the then dormant IRA, with the aim of uniting Ireland under republican rule. As civil rights protests became riots, protestants partisans and the RUC cracked down on marches and protest, , leading to catholic retaliation (the creation of the self declared autonomous area of “Free Derry”) and a spiral of violence.

The British Army was sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 as a neutral force, when turmoil in Londonderry resulted in widespread violence throughout all NI, with Catholic nationalists’ uprisings in all the provinces. As the British Army faced practical difficulties in maintaining law and order, violence looked inevitable and civilians sought protection from paramilitary groups: the new “provisional IRA” (a branch which would soon become bigger than its predecessor) became involved in the defense of several nationalist enclaves/neighborhoods, thus gaining support from the Catholic population. The British Army sought to disarm this organisation with little success, often responding to violence with internments, block to block fighting and, allegedly, torture. Loyalist paramilitary groups also became organised, as Belfast was filled with checkpoints and no-go-areas that served as ways of checking for IRA presence in city areas: these instruments were later put down by British forces during several operations (which saw also a number of civilian victims). When it seemed as though tension had been contained, an IRA bombing in London killed one and injured hundreds: a deterioration of Anglo-Irish relations was later solved with the “Sunningdale Agreement” which gave an advisory role to the Republic of Ireland in Northern Irish matters as well as calling for a disbandment of the Northern Irish Parliament, in order to make it suitable for a shared power between nationalists and loyalists. This agreement collapsed as unionist parties back withdrew their support, thus kickstarting the most violent season of the conflict. Violence continued with IRA bombings in England (26 killed): the organisation gained international recognition as a terrorist group as they attempted to kill PM Margaret Thatcher by bombing an hotel and by conducting several deadly attacks against British forces both on Irish and English soil: they even went as far as to bomb number 10 of Downing Street with improvised mortars.
Naturally IRA attacks were mostly followed by UVF retaliation resulting in the killing of hundreds of civilians and paramilitary “officials”, both catholic and protestants. After roughly 25 years of fighting a historic ceasefire would be called in 1994, so as to allow for negotiations: no progress was made and the IRA started a new bombing campaign on English soil. After the election of Tony Blair as British PM new talks were initiated and in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This agreement sought to put a focus on power sharing within the NI government as well as a reform of the RUC and a general disarmament of paramilitary groups. However, the most important part is the recognition of a possible peaceful process towards a United Ireland under the conditions laid out in subclauses i) and ii) of Article 1.
After 30 years of conflict and more than 3500 deaths (both of civilians and armed personnel) tension started to ease as political efforts were made. Peace is sometimes more difficult to make than war as some wounds are difficult to heal.
It is worth noting that the DUP is the only major political party in NI that openly opposed the Agreement by not signing it: moreover, putting into place the power sharing principles has proven difficult and this has caused a progressive weakening of moderate forces (UUP and SDLP) with a consequent rise of extremist parties’ (Sinn Fein and DUP) consensus in the population.

The present

While the conflict seemed to be resolved, in 2016 the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the European Union, meaning that also Northern Ireland would not be a part of the EU anymore. As a consequence, the border between NI and Ireland would turn into a border between a EU country and a non-EU country, therefore requiring for more controls and checks on people and goods crossing it. That spread discontent in the population, also given the fact that 55.8% of NI’s citizens voted to remain in the EU. This can be a cause for social tension in the area, possibly leading to a new surge of violence, after all the efforts put in place to prevent it with the Good Friday Agreement. There are currently 208 roads crossing the 499-km border and about forty villages are located close to border and rely on transfrontal trade to survive, therefore the social backlash can be harsh, and the border matter has been and is still at the very core of Brexit Negotiation Talks.
The main issues concern the Single European Market, that is the free trade of goods and services within EU countries, and the Customs Union, being the common rules among EU Member States on imports from non-EU countries. A possible solution was inserted in the Withdrawal Agreement put forward by Theresa May’s government in 2018, consisting of a ‘backstop policy’, meaning that Northern Ireland alone would remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, while Scotland, Wales and England would not. This proposal met harsh criticism and was not approved, as it could have sparked separatist sentiment, given the different treatment of NI compared to the rest of UK. With the new government, led by Boris Johnson, a new plan was devised to arrange a ‘Single Regulatory Zone’ in Northern Ireland, set to stay in the Single Market, therefore complying with regulations on food safety, manufactured goods and animal health, but leaving the Customs Union, causing border controls.

The final version of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement coming into force on 1st February 2020 establishes a wide array of provisions, including a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, that allows the creation of a Common Travel Area between the two countries, to allow workers an easy daily crossing, and takes measures on goods; however, different decisions are still to be agreed upon during the Transition Period, set to last until the end of 2020. The Single Market standards will continue to be applied in Northern Ireland, and there will be no tariffs on UK goods entering into NI, and so into the Single Market, as long as such goods will not enter the EU. A Joint Committee of EU and UK officials is discussing upon the circumstances by which a good coming from the UK to NI will be allowed into the Union without custom duties; this and many other issues still remain to be agreed upon, leaving the Brexit talks in a bit of a pickle.
The border fuels a social divide, as unionist and nationalist feelings are still widespread across NI; yet, there are several projects and services that brought communities closer and helped to bridge the divide, most of which under the programme Peace IV, funded by the EU. However, it is not clear the scope by which these attempts will keep being put in place after the end of the Transition period.

The future

What the future holds for Northern Ireland is yet to be decided.
Recent talks are at a deadlock, as checks on goods entering NI from the UK would most certainly mean high costs, that will eventually cause havoc to citizens and impoverish the socioeconomic fabric of Northern Ireland.
“What lies in the future of Northern Ireland?” is a difficult question to answer as scenarios continue to build up and negotiations are continuously opened and put to a halt, we can only hope that politicians and policy makers take serious regard of the history of the region as well as the needs of a population that has long seen everything but understanding.

by Enrico Zonta and Michele Rivetti

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