The most dangerous impact of the Brexit process and of the Internal Market Bill on the Good Friday Agreement is that it may erode trust and security in Ireland/Northern Ireland and between both governments, write Etain Tannam and Mary C. Murphy. Responses to the Bill highlight that British and Irish governments, as well as unionists and nationalists, seem to have markedly different perceptions of what’s needed to sustain peace.
The Internal Market Bill and statement by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State that the UK was willing to break international law was met with shock across Europe. No EU state is more affected by the terms of this proposed legislation than Ireland and no region of the UK more than Northern Ireland. Contrary to the terms of the Protocol, the Internal Market Bill challenges the legal force of agreed rules on state aid and Northern Ireland customs arrangements. The government justifies this violation of international law by claiming that the measures protect the Good Friday Agreement by protecting Strand Three East-West cooperation.
Responses to the Bill
The SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party parties argued that if the Withdrawal Agreement is not implemented the Good Friday Agreement and stability are seriously undermined and that trust and confidence are undermined if the UK government breaks international law. Like the Irish government, their view is that if the agreement is not reached and there are no ‘sea border’ customs checks, customs posts will be necessary on the Irish border to protect the EU’s Single Market. The argument, supported by the then head of the PSNI in 2018, is that customs posts would be a target for dissident republicans leading eventually to the securitisation of the border and increased violence. The underlying argument is that the border represents the core of the identity conflict. Its securitisation in the past was repeatedly targeted and cultural and economic connections between both parts of the island were weak. The unionist and UK government’s response is that their preference against a sea border relates to Strand Three of the Agreement and should not be taken more lightly than nationalists’ preference for a soft Irish border (Strand Two). They argue that a sea border undermines Northern Ireland’s status in the UK and its significance is equal to, if not greater than the significance of the Irish border for nationalists.
The UK government and unionists perceive the Irish assessment to be an over-reaction. The DUP, harking back to earlier unionist rhetoric during the conflict, refers to Ireland as a ‘predatory neighbour’ that is using the border issue as a ploy to achieve a united Ireland, despite the fact that unification has never been an election issue in Ireland, even in the last election in February 2020 and the majority are delighted by the status quo- the soft border and peace. Fundamentally there is a perception that either customs posts should be erected at the Irish border and will not be destabilising, or that the EU should create a bespoke arrangement, relaxing its Single Market rules, so that customs posts will not be necessary. For Irish observers and the EU, the UK is either playing brinkmanship, using Northern Ireland as a pawn to achieve a better trade deal, or alternatively it is an excuse to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement.
Although unfettered trade and a soft border were the preferable outcomes for the Irish government in protecting the Agreement and the Irish economy, the DUP and the UK parliament’s opposition to the backstop and the EU’s emphasis on the sanctity of the Single Market ruled out that outcome. The Irish government had no option but to prioritise one over the other. Given the history of the conflict and the perceived threat of a recurrence of violence and given that the Irish border is on its territory, it is not surprising that it prioritised an open Irish border, calculating that it was essential in protecting the Agreement. For the Irish government, Brexit and its management by the UK government has created this problem. Aside from contrasting assessments of the risks caused by a hard border the announcement of the Internal Market Bill has a negative impact on all three strands of the Agreement, whatever the damage limitation exercise.
As regards Strand One, although the Executive collapsed many times since 2001, Brexit aggravated tensions, heightened by the Internal Market Bill. The 2019 UK election saw an increase in support for the SDLP and Alliance parties that can help mediate tensions between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but even so, the DUP and Sinn Féin are a dominant influence. Underlying the sense of injustice and blame game that has characterised responses is increased mutual distrust. Although, the DUP and Sinn Féin have managed their relationship relatively well during the COVID pandemic, albeit with some incidents, the divisive atmosphere where every issue becomes partisan-linked to ideology is not conducive to the power-sharing modus operandi of the Strand One institutions. It complicates policymaking in the Executive, potentially undermines the substantive value of the Executive and Assembly, and at worst, poses serious challenges to the stability of those same institutions.
The Internal Market Bill has also been criticised for engineering a recentralisation of power and for diluting some of the existing competences and spending powers available to the UK’s devolved areas, further fuelling Scottish nationalism. Tampering with Northern Ireland’s devolution arrangements represents a further threat to a fragile political equilibrium, by playing (inadvertently or not) to the DUP’s historic opposition to the Agreement and its institutions.
The Internal Market Bill obviously potentially impacts on Strand Two of the Agreement. Strand Two reflects the EU’s concept of mutual respect for identities and the post-sovereign concept of uniting of people not territory. Strand Two also provides for cross-border cooperation and explicitly mentions the common EU framework. The Protocol was grounded in a commitment ‘to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation’ (Article 1.2). Central to this objective was the maintenance of an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Apart from the potential risk to peace if UK customs posts were erected on the border, barriers would hinder economic and cultural cross-border cooperation.
The Bill also negatively affects cross-border political relations. It reveals a very different conception of the Irish border between unionists and the Irish government and highlights the significance of that border for unionist and nationalist identity in mirror image ways, the DUP claiming that the Irish government seeks to preserve the open border so as to achieve a united Ireland. Different perceptions of the Agreement are also revealed. Unionists argue that the Protocol was not agreed by consent and therefore undermines the Agreement and also that it constitutes a change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. The spirit of the Agreement is consensual, however, the formal consociational consensual rules apply only to Strand 1- devolved policy areas. UK foreign policy and therefore the Brexit negotiations are the UK government’s legislative responsibility. Brexit itself occurred without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland for the same reason, once the referendum delivered a Leave majority in the UK. A similar misunderstanding is that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is unaffected by the sea border. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is enshrined in the Agreement and can only change if a majority support unification in a referendum vote in Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The acrimony around these issues also reveals the negative impact of Brexit and the Internal Market Bill on Strand Three of the Agreement. Strand Three provides for East-West cooperation between the constituent parts of the UK and Ireland (the British-Irish Council, (BIC) and East-West cooperation between British and Irish governments (the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC)). The Protocol by creating customs barriers between the island and Britain affects economic relations, but the statement that the UK would be prepared to break international law has created a far larger threat by damaging trust between British and Irish governments in an already strained relationship. For both British and Irish governments, their relationship was central to the peace process, but there are different perceptions of its centrality now. British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation was the core condition for the peace process and the fundamental key to the success of the Agreement and future peace and stability. Both kinships states strategically created and framed the incentives for party cooperation in a complex package deal which sought to break the zero-sum nature of sectarian politics. For Irish governments that process is still necessary in the current period and in the post-Brexit years.
However, Brexit has highlighted that intergovernmental cooperation was not as embedded as previously thought and perceptions of the Agreement’s role differed. In particular, the BIIGC did not meet in advance of the Brexit referendum, or in advance of Article 50 being triggered, despite Irish preferences and despite a House of Lords recommendation for close cooperation. Nor was there informal cooperation until it became clear to the UK government that the EU was firm in prioritising the border issue.
Overall, responses to the Internal Market Bill and the Bill itself highlight that British and Irish governments, as well as unionists and nationalists, seem to have markedly different perceptions of the Agreement. Unionists are suspicious of intergovernmental cooperation and particularly of the BIIGC, viewing it as a means of Irish influence leading to unification. Nor has the British government emphasised it, or the BIC. Although opposing interpretations of the Agreement could be accommodated until the Brexit process, increasingly Brexit illuminates how key foundational principles of the Agreement can be vulnerable when a profound challenge arises. Intergovernmental management of these tensions is essential, but intergovernmental tension has increased significantly and has increased conflict between the parties in Northern Ireland, where the knee-jerk reaction is for unionists to defend the UK government and blame the Irish government, mirrored by nationalist responses. In short, the damage to the British-Irish relationship spills over to the other strands of the Agreement. As the preface to the Agreement states, the three strands are interdependent and the functioning of the Agreement relies on all three.
The most dangerous impact of the Brexit process and of the Internal Market Bill on the Good Friday Agreement is its impact on trust and security in Northern Ireland and between the two governments. The origin of the conflict was based very much on insecure identities. Unionists from the foundation of the state in 1921 feared an irrendentist Irish state that would achieve unification. Clearly, since Brexit those fears have been re-ignited.
However the success of the moderate Alliance and SDLP parties in 2019, the increase in the numbers who say they are neither nationalist nor unionist and the fact that a majority of the Northern Irish population supports the Agreement gives cause for some optimism. In addition, Irish officials will seek to restore stability to the British-Irish relationship. They will try to de-dramatise tensions, lobby US politicians intensively to seek leverage, continue close engagement with the EU and simultaneously seek to engage diplomatically with the UK.
Dealing with Brexit was never going to be easy. The past 4 years have in fact been far harder than many envisaged for British and Irish diplomats alike. Weary diplomats will launch a concerted attempt to minimise damage, but in a cold climate, with the increased knowledge that even if the Internal Market Bill was a case of brinkmanship, the rule book of international and bilateral relations was torn up on September eighth and that will be difficult to forget.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. Image copyright: (c) Allan Leonard
HM Treasury stated that there would not be HM border posts on the Irish Border, the PSNI stated that any (HM) border posts would be a target for terrorist activity.
pre the Belfast / GF Agreement, there were almost no HM posts on the Irish border (with possible the exception of Strabane which in almost in the city of London-Derry, In the early 70’s HM Customs lost most of their border posts to Republican bombs.
At the same time RoI Customs operated c. 10 Major road stations and up to 50 permanent posts (from Mull Co. Donegal to Omagh Co Louth).
The statements are regression to form. NI traders were permitted – engouraced to use stamped import documets from RoI Customs as proof of export from the UK.
This reversion to form indicated a form of ‘Rent-seeking’ where the UK uses the facilities on another smaller state for it’s own purposed (the RoI didn’t reciprocate at the time and goods had to be presented at the fromtier post to certify export (though with a fairly liquid border, and no HM Customs enforcement patrols this was useless for criminal enquiries – Mutual Assistance with HMG was reliant on the goodwill of the indvidual officers in NI).
What the UK as done, in my opiinon, is to declare a resumption of he UK-Irisg Free State Trade war of 1931-5. this poisoned the well of relations for 80 years, and probably influenced the RoI’s neutrality in WWII and the reruen of teh treaty ports.
It appears from a distance that the UK is of the opinion that the EU will cave on Ireland’s request – HMGfails to notce that the RoI is about the size of Manchester and it’s easy to faciiltate them by funds – consider Johnson’s project Moonshot – 2,000 per person in the UK – that’s only 9 billion to facilitate Ireland from the EU and a third is already granted.
no real answer to this one – damage is done – maybe the 22nd century will see a difference
The article can be boiled down to one sentence:
“The IRA won’t like this.”
If the EU were to pledge not to ‘weaponise’ the withdrawal agreement during the current negotiations and only utilise it in the way that both parties intended at the time of signing, then it should be possible to resolve the matter.
The key to understanding the negotiating motives of this present extreme British nationalist government lies in recognising the visceral fear they possess of any judicial exposure of past British state crimes committed agsinst their own citizens in N.I. during the dirty counter insurgency Operation Banner (1969-2007). See: their recent Overseas Operation Bill.
Dublin faces a similar political dilemma in that it was complicit in these atrocities through the turning of a blind eye to them. British City of London money talked and won the political argument tor FF and FG . Such a Realpolitik past decision has just been made even more presently real by the border implications of Brexit and a rise in popularity for Sinn Fein in recent political polls.
Contrary to popular global liberal consensus, the DUP knew exactly what they were doing supporting the hardest of Brexits, seeing it as their political opportunity to deploy the legal fudge of the despised GFA to reinstate partition. They are sectarian ideologues who believe that the EU peace project is a Vatican run global catholic plot. They will lie about this to your face but with the aid of fellow Britain First fanatic Michael Gove will happily drive the EU to possibly their first postwar conflict by forcing them to deploy troops on the streets of Belfast. See: their recent Internal UK Market Bill.
How the EU handle this rogue British state and their extremist Brexit allies in N.I. will be a political test that will win or lose the next EU generation’s loyalty.
In the interests of all parties there is the seeking of a peacefull existence. All countries should be able to protect their terrioty and trade.The GFA(note agreement) is not a weapon that makes war but merely helps apparently to enable peace. Disagreement does not make war but merely helps give reason for war. There has been no total cease fire on the Island and therfore still there is a war going on. Less than before but still going on. The punishment for continuing to maim and kill should be the eradication of the perpetrators and both sides of the original border should have given that their best endeavors. That they have not done so and within an agreement which is not satisfactory over the space of time and which needs reapraisal. No weapons have been fired so no war has been restarted so to speak,except for a tussle as to the operation of the (agreement).to the detriment of one of the sides.Thus that side wants to change the unforeseen?arising problem.
The Belfast Agreement did bring peace
2nd – HMG had no frontier posts from about the 1950’s, they reduced to about 3 road-stations from the mid-1970’s due to civil revolt from within the UK, specifically the North West UK. The govt. of the RoI had approximately 50 frontier posts from Muff (Co. Donegal) to Omeath (Co. Louth) and 10-12 Road Stations (commercial vehicles) HMG accepted duplicate (?) stamped docments from RoI Revenue – hardly managing one’s own borders!
3rd there was no war, and therfore no cease-fire. THe last declaration of war was the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. There was no cease fire in 1923, the winning side took over the running of the Free State. What was in teh NW UK, was severl years of Civil Disobedience from the local citizenry, disurbing the King’s Peace allowing the imposition of martial law.
Familiar to those of us who live in N. America, changes to a constitution is by Plecbisite – the RoI part of the Agreement was by a referendum, the RoI Government would be required to place any changes before their electorate – no guarantee of success (or what the UK would regrd as success)
look up the commest of Priti Patel, Michael Gove and an unnamed Conservative MP on handling the Irish.
also noteworthy, is the RoI’s ability to agrue their points before Congress (US), the EU (Commission Parliament) and tehir ability to meet and influence the Heads of State / Parliament in the EU 27 (including NATO members)
Contrary to popular belief in GB, or more specifically the English Home-Counties, the actions referrred to here were largely confined to the UK, specifically the North West UK (Northern Ireland).
The overall international condemnation of the UK’s policy shift to withdraw from key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement is likely to reinforce a basic lack of trust in any future settlement and conjures up images of the ‘perfidious Albion’. Even compromise adjustments to the modus of parliamentary approval of the Internal Markets Bill leaves the renege clause firmly in place…just a matter of which arm of the parliamentary institution triggers it. In so many ways we are staring down the barrel of a no deal Brexit….and who benefits??
So the EU have raised an infringement procedure against the UK on this. There are 8 EU countries who have more infringements raised against them than the UK.
The trivialisation of actions being taken by the EU masks a sense of arrogance…such as’ the EU always caves in at the last moment’…and worringly in that adequate premptive action is not being taken to prevent what could be catastrophic for certain sections of the populations…disguised probably as an after-effect of COVID to save political bots. Inrelation to infringement procedures, as there may be an issues of ECJ jurisdiction after the end of the year, it may then be taken to the World Court in the Hague. A negative judgement would then undermine much of the ‘soft power’ upon which the UK prides itself internationally.