Hard Borders of the Mind: Brexit, Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement

In an already divided society, the uncertainty of Brexit could breed instability.

Nineteen years ago this week, on 10 April 1998, the British and Irish governments and the eight political parties in Northern Ireland signed an agreement that would stabilise relations between Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

The deal, which has come to be known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), brought to a close three decades of sustained inter-community violence in Northern Ireland and committed the region to a sustainable power-sharing agreement. It also provided, if not a clear path, then at least a signpost towards Irish unification.

Though it is far from the final chapter in the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement appeared to settle the “Irish question”, as our UK counterparts frequently termed it, and set the region on the sometimes difficult road towards reconciliation. It is a watershed moment in British-Irish relations.

But it is also something more than that. It is an agreement made possible in no small part by all parties’ membership of and support from the European Union. Improved British and Irish relations were facilitated by frequent contact in European institutions over three decades, and the European Union fully supported the agreement, in some cases directly funding key elements. The peace in Northern Ireland is a European success story.

Hardly three decades later, the island of Ireland finds itself in the unexpected and unwanted position of having to question the permanence of this settlement. Again, Europe will play an important role in reaching a solution.

Political deadlock

The timing could scarcely be worse.

The resignation in January of Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister of the Northern Irish Executive and Leader of Sinn Fein (the Irish Republican party, who supported a Remain vote in the referendum), brought to a head one of the more acrimonious periods in the short history of the Northern Ireland Executive, the power-sharing structure created by the peace agreement.

Several years of disputes over a variety of issues, including religious parade routes, the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, and even rules over the flying of flags on Government buildings, led to the reopening of deep divisions between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in the North and the driving force behind pro-Brexit sentiment in the region.

One cannot discuss Northern Ireland today without returning to the question of the deeply symbolic open border with Ireland.

Two separate agreements in 2014 and 2015 were heralded as steps towards further normalising politics and society in Northern Ireland, but this recent progress appears to have come undone. It is important to note that it was not Brexit which caused this latest breakdown, even though the divisive campaign and result did not help matters. Instead, the rather more mundane issue of alleged budgetary mismanagement bears responsibility.

The subsequent Northern Irish Assembly elections proved inconclusive, as Sinn Fein virtually eliminated the Unionist majority, closing the gap on the DUP to within one seat. At time of writing six weeks later, the parties remain to negotiate a mutually agreeable power-sharing solution. This deadlock raises the spectre of a return to direct rule from London – a markedly retrograde step for a region which for the past decade has been earnestly, if not always successfully, engaged in the management of its own affairs.

Brexit, Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement

Amidst all of this, Brexit raises uncertain implications for many of the key issues addressed by the GFA, including those of identity, equality, parity of esteem and the health of the cross-border and bilateral relationships.

A key element to be considered in the coming months, and one which was rarely discussed in advance of the referendum, will be discerning to what extent the unilateral act of Brexit might undermine the spirit or functioning of the agreement.

Brexit clearly impacts on a number of elements of the GFA, and foremost among these is the issue of citizenship and identity. The agreement made specific allowances for the people of Northern Ireland to be recognised and accepted as Irish or British citizens (or both). Many have availed of their right to hold an Irish passport. While this is unlikely to change after Brexit, it gives rise to the unprecedented situation in which several hundred thousand Irish citizens will, overnight and in most cases against their will, find themselves outside the European Union.

Questions can also be raised over the future of North-South bodies established under the GFA. Some of these bodies either exist exclusively to disburse EU peace and reconciliation funds (funds which themselves could evaporate after Brexit), or have an explicit mandate to consider the EU dimension of bilateral relations, including relevant programmes and policy implementation.

And one cannot discuss Northern Ireland today without returning to the question of the deeply symbolic open border with Ireland. Through the combination of EU and bilateral rules on free movement and rights to residence, membership of the EU’s customs union, and the Good Friday Agreement the border had until recently all but receded into memory. Brexit reopens the question of customs posts, at the very least, and creative solutions must be employed to ensure that neither cross-border trade nor intercommunity relations suffer unduly.


The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January, and the present deadlock in forming a new Executive, were not a direct result of the UK referendum vote. But both are a timely reminder of an issue which featured little in the referendum debate and was far from the minds of many UK voters, Leave or Remain, when they entered the polling booths on 23 June 2016: Northern Ireland faces enduring challenges of restoring inter-community harmony and addressing the legacy of its troubled history.

The European Council and the UK have committed to preventing the re-emergence of a border on the island. This is a credit to both parties, and to the Irish Government, which has spent months raising awareness of the Irish issues. The task ahead is not insurmountable, but while the negotiators address the question of the hard border on the island, they must also be attentive to the hard borders of the mind in Northern Ireland.

It is important to state that a return to violence as a result of the above issues is unlikely. Nonetheless, in an already divided society, uncertainty itself can breed instability, and the issues raised by Brexit present clear risks to the continuing process of reconciliation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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