Why changing the Good Friday Agreement because Brexit is such a dangerous idea
Northern Ireland has not been free from violence since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, but a recent car bomb attack in Derry was the “most significant” in years, according to the police. No one was hurt in the incident, but it was an unwelcome reminder of the 30 years of violence during the Troubles and reinforced the fact that peace is fragile.
At the same time as this attack was taking place, the British government was reported to be considering whether to “amend” the Good Friday Agreement in an attempt to solve the Brexit deadlock. By amending the agreement to guarantee an open border, the government could avoid having to commit to a backstop in the Brexit bill – and get the bill through parliament. In the face of massive backlash, the government denied the claims that it wants to change the Good Friday Agreement, though this is not the first time that its commitment to this agreement has been questioned in the Brexit process.
Whether the Good Friday Agreement needs amending is not a question that ought to be driven by the British government’s Brexit strategy. Our research shows that this is a question that should be driven from the bottom up, by the needs and concerns of the population in Northern Ireland.
Peace agreements are always the result of long and difficult bargaining processes, and the process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement was no exception. They are always compromise documents, signed by representatives of the warring parties – leaders of governments and opposition groups. The provisions necessary for the warring parties to lay their weapons are not necessarily popular among the population in whose name the agreement is signed. Yet peace agreements need local support to work.
As part of an Attitudes for Peace research project, we conducted a public opinion survey in Northern Ireland around the time of the Brexit referendum (between May and July 2016). The survey provides a unique window into people’s attitudes towards the Good Friday Agreement at that crucial time. It shows that despite the agreement’s shortcomings, it generally has widespread support.
Importantly, the survey also shows that people of Northern Ireland continue to be concerned about a return to the violence of the past and that society continues to be divided along communal lines. The British government using the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit process is unlikely to soften those divides.
The path to coexistence
Among the 800 survey respondents, 89% felt that the peace agreement was necessary to end the conflict and 84% felt it reflected the will of the people of Northern Ireland. Asked whether they were satisfied with the peace process, 74% agreed. Though about half of the respondents expressed some concern that the agreement had not been implemented properly – which is likely to have grown in the last two years, given the absence of a functioning power sharing government – the survey showed generally positive attitudes to the agreement in both communities. For example, among both Catholics and Protestants, there is strong support for power sharing and the agreement’s aim to eliminate differences in employment rates between the two communities.
Reflecting the major fault lines of the conflict, the survey shows that one of the divisive issues in the agreement – although overall strongly supported – is the provision stating that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK if the majority of the population so wishes. The architects of the Good Friday Agreement never sought to resolve the political differences that led to the conflict directly. Instead, the hope was that a return to peaceful politics and political discourse would, in time, lead to coexistence and reconciliation. The concern today is that Brexit is emphasising the divisive issues of the Troubles. Brexit negotiations and the idea that the peace agreement is “up for grabs” has the potential to deepen divides.
The most obvious divides remain physical. The Catholic and Protestant communities are highly segregated, especially in poorer and urban areas. Nothing has come to represent communal divisions more than the interfaces and so-called peace walls, several of which were built since 1998. The walls are supposed to come down by 2023, but the survey shows that the share of the population that still finds them necessary (38%) is just as big as the share supporting their dismantlement (40%). This demonstrates people’s insecurity and fear of a return to violence.
The survey shows that people were particularly supportive of the security brought by disarmament – in both communities. Indeed, the vast majority wants to move on from the conflict. The survey also highlights people’s fear of renewed violence. A large minority saw political violence (41%) and the risk of new armed conflict (36%) as a big problem. The majority of respondents do not support violence as a political means, though the survey does show support for violence under certain circumstances. When probed, some respondents said that political violence is justified to defend oneself “if the government turns repressive or violent” (29%), “if the security forces become too powerful” (22%), and “if the state treats some groups more favourably than others” (15%).
The Good Friday Agreement is a pillar for the peace in Northern Ireland. It has been hailed as a model for peace agreements, which in many ways is reflected in the overall high levels of support it enjoys. Yet peace is still fragile in Northern Ireland, threatened both by communal divides and persistent violence. Whether or not these problems can be solved by amending the Good Friday Agreement is debatable. However, any discussions on the issue should be motivated by efforts towards greater reconciliation, the normalisation of relations between the two communities, and reducing violence, not power politics in London, Dublin, or Brussels.