On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement marked an end to 30 years of conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles. At the heart of the resolution was a power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin. Brexit put this agreement into question.
Before Brexit, trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was straightforward. Both were in the EU and shared the same trade rules. Goods, services and people could seamlessly move across the border. Northern Ireland is a part of the UK and Brexit created a de facto hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This created a major problem. The Protestant DUP supports closer union with the UK while the Catholic Sinn Féin aims to maintain ties with the Irish Republic south of Northern Ireland. A deal was needed to avoid a return to the pre-Good Friday Agreement days.
When former UK prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to a Brexit deal with the EU, the Northern Ireland Protocol was a part of it. This came into force on January 1, 2021. As per this protocol, goods from the Republic of Ireland and the UK were not to be checked at the Northern Irish border. Instead, checks were to be done at Northern Ireland’s ports. The DUP argues this protocol has created an effective border between Northern Ireland and the UK.
The DUP’s boycott is unwise
In February 2022, the DUP began its boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, which continues to this day. On February 27, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed a new agreement called the Windsor Framework designed to make trade between Northern Ireland and the UK easier. This gives Stormont “more say over EU rules and has been welcomed by most Northern Ireland parties.” However, the DUP opposes this framework and has yet to re-enter power sharing.
This stalemate in the politics of Northern Ireland seems likely to continue. It leaves an empty space in the political life of Northern Ireland, depriving people of a forum to discuss their problems. In fact, the DUP’s boycott of Stormont makes it harder for politicians to even meet each other.
If a political vacuum like this is not filled by elected politicians, it leaves the door wide open for those with undemocratic agendas. This space could be occupied, as in the past, by people who are willing to use murder to make themselves heard.
The DUP’s boycott is intended as a lever to change the Windsor Framework. However, this boycott reveals deeper problems, which if left unaddressed, could lead to such things happening again in the future. It is clear that the Windsor Framework will not be amended. The UK and the EU have a lot of other business to do together, especially in face of grave global threats.
The DUP has to realize that the requirements of the EU single market necessitate some form of borders. While these may alarm its supporters, there are things that could be done to reassure DUP voters. So far, the DUP has offered no concrete ideas in writing. It could take the lead and sketch out practical proposals, using the local knowledge of its members, instead of waiting for others to do so.
This post-Brexit impasse also raises questions about the meaning of Ulster Unionism in the 21st century. Ulster is one of the four traditional Irish provinces made up of nine counties: six of these constitute Northern Ireland and the remaining three are in the Republic of Ireland. Unionists self-identify with the UK and have loyalty to British institutions. However, this loyalty is to the sort of UK that existed in the 1950s instead of the diverse and hyper-globalized UK that actually exists in 2023.
Just as the UK has changed, so has Northern Ireland. The DUP must focus its thinking on younger voters in Northern Ireland, who self-identify as neither Unionist nor nationalist. These are the swing voters who will determine the future direction of Northern Ireland. These swing voters may look for an entirely new dispensation for Northern Ireland, one that is neither nationalist nor Unionist. The binary and irreconcilable way in which that choice is unfortunately presented in the Good Friday Agreement might soon be superseded by changes in society.
What is the way forward?
Unionist leaders would best serve the interests of voters by working out ways to persuade non-Unionists to contentedly accept arrangements within which all will feel secure and respected. That is a huge task, and a challenge to the Unionist imagination. Realistic Unionists know in their hearts that this is the only way forward.
Rather than focussing all their energies on EU goods standards being applied in Northern Ireland, the DUP should be putting forward much broader intellectual, political and economic arguments. They should be working for arrangements in which Unionists, nationalists and voters who are neither can all feel secure. To achieve this, Unionism would have to present itself in a completely different way, emphasizing symbols that the entire community can embrace, rather than symbols that repel some.
This would require a huge infusion of self-confidence in Unionism. It would be uncomfortable for the base of the party, but the base will never deliver a majority for the DUP.
At its core, the conflict is about identity. Identity is not a simple idea. It is about far more than politics, territory or sovereignties. The question I have is simple: Can we not build a shared identity to which all the people of Northern Ireland could subscribe?
Identity, of course, includes history and aspects of which make us proud. But, every day, we write some new history. I believe identity can be cultivated in two radically different ways. Either it can be built on the basis of rivalry against another community or it can be built on the basis of shared achievement. The latter is the best way to build a shared identity.
The forced choice in the Northern Ireland Agreement between the two fundamentally contradictory aspirations, union with Dublin or union with London, works against the building of a shared identity. We must move on from this binary choice.
The parallel consent rules in the Assembly should be changed. Giving extra weight to the votes of the members of the legislative assembly, who have chosen one or other of the two contradictory aspirations, is not the best way to protect minorities. In fact, it oppresses the minority that chooses the middle ground. This minority might one day even be the majority. The case for changing parallel consent rules is becoming stronger.
Creating a shared identity is becoming ever more important. Some good work can be done at community level, but it is difficult to have shared achievements, at least at the political level, if the institutions of governance are not up and working.
Like the DUP, some nationalists may also be going down a corridor that leads to frustration. By putting all their energy into seeking a poll for a union with the Republic of Ireland, they are setting up a conflict which they may not win. There are signs that Sinn Féin is beginning to see this. Gerry Adams recently told a reporter from The Currency that “Irish unity is not a 50% +1 equation. Unionists will need to buy in too.”
Adams has made a welcome and important statement. Unfortunately, the Good Friday Agreement does not take this view into account. It provides for irrevocable Irish unity to be voted through on a 50%+1 basis. It will be interesting to see what the leadership of Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have to say about Adams’s idea, which would require the rewording of the Good Friday Agreement.
We must remember that the goal of this 1998 agreement was to bring reconciliation and trust to Northern Ireland. The spirit of this historic agreement was to bring peace and end the Troubles.
In the 1990s, symbolic gestures played a great role in the peace process. When I was Taoiseach—the Irish term for prime minister—in 1995, I organized a commemoration at the War Memorial in Islandbridge. It honored the Irish who had died in World War II fighting in British uniform. Sinn Féin sent Tom Hartley as their representative, which was an important gesture.
Symbolic gestures continue to matter. In 2018, the DUP leader Arlene Foster attended the Gaelic Athletic Association’s Ulster Football Final between Donegal and Fermanagh in County Monaghan. Sports have also been a dividing line in Northern Ireland. Foster said, “I understand the significance of me being here as well today, so I hope I enjoy today.” Needless to say, her gesture was important and powerful.
Perhaps when the local elections are over, the British and Irish governments and the parties in Northern Ireland should think about events and activities that could promote reconciliation and thus create the emotional space for political compromise. These symbolic gestures are needed yet again to bring peace to a divided and troubled land.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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