How the peace process was tied to the EU, and what Brexit means

31 Mar 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 31 Mar 2017

Farewell to all that

It has been possible to discern a few shards of hope in what has been a difficult and turbulent few days for Northern Ireland. Scope reviews an historic week, firstly Brexit. 

On the very day that effective governance of Northern Ireland passed into the hands of a civil servant Article 50 was triggered and the UK started the process of withdrawal from the European Union against the express wishes of Northern Ireland voters.

There has been much written about the impact on the island of Ireland, and especially the form that the border will take. This has been exacerbated by claims that Northern Ireland is too small and

On Brexit, despite the previous Executive’s failure to produce a coherent, agreed position paper on the upcoming negotiations we find ourselves specifically mentioned in Theresa May’s farewell letter, formally triggering Article 50.

It outlines seven core principles for the negotiations and one of them is to pay attention to the “unique relationship” between the Republic of Ireland and the UK and the peace process.

She wrote: “We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries, to be able to maintain the Common Travel Area between us, and to make sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland. We also have an important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland, and to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement.

There will be posturing from both sides. But the European Union is most unlikely to do or say anything to the contrary. We should remember that the European Union has always been a good and faithful friend to the peace process, as evidenced by the generous peace funding provided for many years through the SEUPB. The fact that the Republic is still a member, is the most vulnerable to UK withdrawal means that it cannot be hung out to dry.  

It would also appear that the British government, rocked by the SNP’s campaign for a second independence referendum is determined to avoid a border poll here and feels it is important to close down further talk of hard borders as soon as it can. There has even been talk of finding a way to replace the European peace funding.

So the process of withdrawal has got off to a better start than many might have feared. It looks as if despite our own political vacuum Northern Ireland and the border will be treated as a special case. Scotland, for all the talk of secession does not feature at all in May’s missive.

However it will be interesting to see how they get over this simple fact. Key to the evolution of the peace process has been the fact that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland are members of the EU. There are profound implications of that coming to an end.

After the death of Martin McGuinness there has been much debate about Republicans and the peace process. In all this debate, mainly centring around McGuinness’s “journey” from IRA commander to his toasting of the Queen, the real intellectual architect of peace, John Hume has been either ignored or forgotten. We should remember that a fundamental element in his vision of an end to conflict was that through involvement in shared European institutions apparently insoluble problems could be resolved and warring communities reconciled.

This was both a practical tool and provided a vision. The fact that Ireland and the UK were both English speaking islands on the fringes of Europe meant the  governments often had common purpose within the Union. This played an important function in building stronger relationships after they joined.

 Hume then sold to the governments and to Europe that the principle of respecting diversity, a central EU theme, was critical to the resolution of our conflict. His lobbying persuaded the European Union to see that it too had a role in peace, hence ultimately the peace funding. It was a sound and logical case to make. After all, one of the main drivers for the formation of the Union itself was conflict resolution:  the desire to end the European wars that had scarred the continent for centuries.

Hume also had a vision for Ireland, within an evolving Europe, where national boundaries did not seem as important.  His idea was that as people saw themselves more and more as Europeans then it was possible to be British or Irish, and European in the same territorial space.  Indeed the Irish government used to have a slogan declaring the Irish people as “the young Europeans”. Over time traditional animosities would fade as people became comfortable with a different view of national and cultural identity. It wasn’t even necessary to understand what was happening to be influenced by this process.

Resolution to the conflict in Ireland would therefore not have winners and losers. Instead geographical boundaries would not matter so much any longer. Free trade, free travel, a common Human Rights system, the same currency, increasingly similar laws and regulations. All these have brought former enemies on the continent together. It is inconceivable, for example, that France and Germany will ever go to war again over Alsace Lorraine, a region fought over for centuries, and now the location of the European parliament. The strategy was well thought through and there was evidence that it might work.

Ironically it has been a resurgence not of Irish but of British nationalism that has led to the death of Hume’s vision for reconciliation.

It is good therefore to see the British government acknowledging the challenge that Brexit poses to the peace process and relations within Ireland and between the islands. There were fears that it might not. However does it have any idea of an alternative strategy for reconciliation, even a single idea?

As Brexit unfolds, so too will older patterns of thinking resurface. There will be focus on the border. The reunification debate will resurface, uncertainty will prevail, fears will be expressed, darker forces may reawaken. There is much to be done.



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