20 years on from the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland must accept the mandate for Brexit and respond accordingly

20 years on from the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland must accept the mandate for Brexit and respond accordingly

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. If the period since the EU referendum is any indication, it may be the basis for invoking ‘threats’ to the peace process in Northern Ireland. The constant repetition of such threats does not make them any more true, nor any less immoral.

When key figures of what would be ordinarily be called ‘the UK establishment’ think it is acceptable to casually cast about the potential for death and destruction in Northern Ireland as cheap political currency, it is they who need to look deep within themselves – not those who supported the cause of Leave. History will not judge them kindly and neither should it.

The Belfast Agreement was not the alpha and omega of the peace in Northern Ireland and if it had been treated as such the totality of progress that has been achieved would not have happened.

The Belfast Agreement was always an imperfect and incomplete document. The DUP recognised that from the beginning. In the years that followed, its flaws, weaknesses and omissions became apparent as it failed to deliver promised IRA decommissioning and Sinn Fein buy-in to support the police, nor stable collective government.

However, the people’s desire for a peaceful Northern Ireland and political progress endured. This desire ensured that whatever the political challenges a return to violence was unacceptable. The movement on the winding and tortuous path has been always forward. This desire for peace is as strong as it ever was and the progress was achieved by three means:

  • Recognition that changes could be made to the Belfast Agreement;
  • Recognition that there were many areas the Belfast Agreement did not address or only in a limited manner;
  • Recognition that new issues would develop.

Change under each of these was achieved by agreement that had the support of a majority of the two main political communities in Northern Ireland.

The practical examples of each of these are found in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 which established a sustained working Executive, the Hillsborough Agreement which led to the devolution of policing and justice and the Fresh Start Agreement which primarily dealt with the issue of Welfare Reform.

So, change has always been part of the process and it was delivered through commitment, hard work and compromise.

The UK leaving the EU was simply not envisaged when the Belfast Agreement was concluded. It is a new issue. It requires its own response, a response that could be best achieved with a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Yet Sinn Fein continue to run away from what needs to be done. The Irish Government under Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have pandered to this behaviour and perpetuated it in the pursuit of party electoral advantage that undermines their country’s deeper interests.

However, no new problem has been approached with a blank sheet. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 that flowed from the Belfast Agreement gave the Northern Ireland Assembly the right to vary the welfare system if the Assembly shouldered the cost. This principle was held to in the final agreement reached on Welfare Reform. Interestingly, the same 1998 Act makes provision to prevent the Northern Ireland Assembly from doing anything to harm the UK single market.

In her Killarney Address in January, the DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, set out the future relationship she envisaged with the Irish Republic. She highlighted how the infrastructure of the Belfast Agreement could not only be used but built upon. She stated:

“I believe that the British Irish Council has been played a valuable role over the past 20 years and I can recall in different Ministerial capacities useful engagements with counterparts from across these islands, but Brexit creates an opportunity to reimagine the British Irish Council and transform it into something closer to what was originally envisaged.”

She also cited the Nordic Council as a relevant model for this new bolstered relationship.

A sensible Brexit will be achieved by accepting the mandate for change, assessing the new circumstances, examining what already exists and what changes and additions to them will be required to meet any challenge and fulfill the opportunities.

This is the leadership Unionism is offering on future relationships and building on what works to deal with new circumstances. It is still waiting for leadership from any level of Irish nationalism.