THE Irish government, the EU and the Biden administration want you to believe that adherence to the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the UK/EU Brexit trade deal is pivotal to maintaining the Good Friday Agreement.
I have my doubts that they are reading the same Good Friday Agreement that I have recently revisited. While I have many criticisms of the agreement – at times I even regret having voted for it – it did bring an end to both republican and loyalist terrorism.
It is well known that Tony Blair allowed for a degree of what was termed ‘constructive ambiguity’ to get the Good Friday Agreement over the line. That said, some passages are abundantly clear. Funnily enough, these passages are the ones now being completely ignored by the Irish government, Sinn Fein and the EU when they argue that an internal UK trade border is essential to preserve the GFA.
‘Parity of esteem’ is one of the underpinning principles enshrined in the very ink of the GFA. It guarantees that both unionist and nationalist perspectives and aspirations are given equal weight. Can anyone explain to me how asking unionists to accept an internal UK trade border so that Northern Irish nationalists can avoid a trade border with the Republic of Ireland equates to ‘parity of esteem’ for both traditions?
The GFA also states that there can be no change in Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK without the consent of the majority of its population. The Irish government and the EU argue that Northern Ireland’s status within the UK is unchanged by the protocol. While this may be true in theory, in practice Northern Ireland now has an internal trade border with the rest of the UK and is subject to EU regulations and laws in a way that England, Scotland and Wales are not. If that isn’t an altered constitutional status I don’t know what is. Only a politician with a conflicting agenda could argue otherwise. If the governments of the UK and Republic of Ireland really cherished the GFA, as they both claim, they should never have agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol.
During Brexit negotiations, the government here in the Republic of Ireland should have insisted that relative political stability in Northern Ireland was hard won, and that to avoid antagonising either community, and particularly the violent fringes, a creative solution acceptable to both traditions and the subdivisions within them would have to be found. If the Irish government really cherished the GFA, they would have made it clear to Brussels that the GFA’s ‘parity of esteem’ principle couldn’t allow for any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but equally important, there could be no trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Most unionists have opposed all these borders while the Irish government and nationalists have fallen into line with the EU’s insistence on a trade border within the UK. Again, where is the ‘parity of esteem’ in all of that? And we are led to believe by much of the pro-EU media that it is unionists who are incapable of political accommodation.
During Brexit negotiations, the purportedly independent government here in Dublin asserted that any negotiation about its own border with Northern Ireland was an EU matter and that it couldn’t be involved in bilateral negotiations with the UK. This didn’t stop the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and self-declared European federalist Leo Varadkar from regularly expressing his views on Brexit, often in a condescending manner. At one point, Varadkar rightly pointed out that a hard border in Ireland could invite attacks from dissident Republican terrorists. However, most of the media failed to challenge him that the only side threatening a hard border in Ireland was the EU. More importantly, did it never occur to Leo Varadkar and the rest of the Irish pro-EU political and media establishment that a border between Northern Ireland and Britain could just as easily revive loyalist terrorism? In fact, we have seen disturbing stirrings in those circles as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
One lesson that should have been well learned from Northern Ireland’s troubled history is that when one community feels it is being mistreated to the benefit of the other there are always a minority of extremists on both sides willing to resort to terrorism. Varadkar and the rest of the Irish political establishment acknowledge only half that problem when it comes to borders on our islands. Unfortunately, the Irish government’s obsequious devotion to the EU and its complete disregard for the ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘consent’ principles within the GFA are the real threat to that agreement. That’s a view you won’t hear expressed in most of the pro-EU British and Irish media.