Growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was always acutely aware of the significance of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the peace it brought between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces. I lived directly under a 50-foot wall that divided Catholics from Protestants in Belfast. My parents and neighbors often told tales of conflict and oppression experienced by their generations. They spoke of how British forces engaged in degrading strip searches and imprisoned hundreds without fair trials. They lived in fear that any trip to the corner store could be their last due to unionist paramilitaries. No one felt safe; even priests were murdered in the courtyards of their own churches. Despite the peace agreement, I faced my own sectarian experiences. I was often stopped by a police force that was majority Protestant and unionist for no crime other than walking down the street late at night. Yet, despite lingering tensions, overall, the peace process had made life better. My friends, and our counterparts from unionist backgrounds, did not witness the same level of violence as our parents. We had more educational opportunities, and we found spaces for dialogue in cross-community youth organizations such as Quaker Cottage and Corrymeela.
Now, into my late twenties, my life is vastly different than the path my parents envisioned for me when I was born by the war-torn streets of the Falls Road. By 1998, the brutality of The Troubles was at an end, and I grew up in a mostly peaceful neighborhood. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in History from Ulster University, where I was introduced to upper and middle-class people from Unionist and Nationalist backgrounds. I seized the educational opportunity and graduated from Ulster before moving to the United States for a doctoral degree. Higher education was an opportunity that few working-class people from older generations on both sides of the divide were given. Living in America since 2012, I periodically visit home to see my family and friends, and our conversations often turn to the current political climate in Ireland. There was always the feeling that the devolved government in Northern Ireland was working, that the conflict was finished, and that the British and Irish were more united than ever.
That changed in 2016 due to the referendum on Britain’s position in Europe. Since the Brexit vote, conversations with friends, family, and neighbors have taken a gloomier, more uncertain tone.
The Brexit referendum saw reckless politicians play on the patriotism of the English people and their nostalgia for former imperial glory. Deceitful claims of Brexiteers, most famously that the UK could use the 350 million pounds it sent to the European Union every week to fund the National Health Service, further enticed the British people into leaving the EU. Soon, they could regulate the shape of their own bananas and stop immigrants at the border, with blue passports and sunny uplands of free trade with the world. In many ways, especially in comparing banana sizes, Brexit was an attempt by the English to restore their sense of masculinity and superiority.
Four years on from the Brexit vote during a global pandemic, Britain still faces one island sized problem in their quest for a return to glory.
In their brash decision to leave the European Union, the British people neglected to consider the impact it would have on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and the problems it would cause for Ireland as a whole. Perhaps, this neglect is a colonial legacy, where the English assume the Irish will do what they are told. This time, however, the Irish cannot and will not simply accept British decisions, because the stakes are too high. Brexit fundamentally undermines the Good Friday Agreement. First, Catholics in Belfast do not trust the British government, in which Theresa May’s Conservatives depend upon Northern Ireland’s Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist and pro-Brexit party in Northern Ireland, to rule justly and fairly without the influence of the EU. Irish Catholics distrust the DUP, under the leadership of Arlene Foster, because it remains the party whose former leader, Ian Paisley, once stated that Catholics “multiply like vermin” and declared that Catholic priests “handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners” in support of the IRA. Moreover, the British government engaged in several violations of human rights during The Troubles, particularly mass internment. The Human Rights Act of 1998, which London adopted along with the Good Friday Agreement, is based solely on the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For Catholics, Europe guaranteed their human rights, not Great Britain or even the devolved government in Stormont. The fact that the DUP is propping up the Conservative government also brings fears of austerity measures hitting nationalist communities harder than unionist communities, especially those who belong to minority groups such as LGBTQ persons.
Second, the border issue is now thrown into greater doubt than any time since 1922. As a child, I remember taking trips to Dublin without ever seeing a checkpoint or a border officer. It was strange when the currency changed from pounds to euros, but I still felt as though I was within the same country. Any attempt at a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which the DUP has specifically requested, would throw the nationalist community into turmoil. It would revitalize dissident republicans and members of nationalist paramilitaries that did not accept the Good Friday Agreement because it would confirm their grievances that the Good Friday Agreement had merely ratified Irish division and maintained British rule. Moreover, it would make life more difficult in thriving economic regions built along the current soft border.
Importantly, COVID-19 has demonstrated the clear need for an all island agenda on public health. The coronavirus does not acknowledge boarders and neither will any future global health crisis. England’s covid related death rate is three times higher than Ireland’s because Boris Johnson’s administration has proven inadequate in enforcing restrictions. The Unionists in the North of Ireland attempted to replicate the British policy, but quickly realized they had to follow Dublin’s lead. Ireland has been largely successful in flattening the curve because they had a collaborative agenda between the North and South. A hard border and a lack of communication between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would have led to a devastating amount of deaths throughout the island.
Imposing a hard border provides no benefit to Ireland and drastically undermines 20 years of peace.
From the perspective of an expat like myself currently observing Brexit from afar, I believe the British people and the Conservative Party in particular have backed themselves into a corner. Anything other than a hard border would be a betrayal of the Brexit agenda, but a hard border brings turmoil to Ireland.
The American government plays a key role in this situation as a partner in the Irish peace process. President Bill Clinton, various Congressmen, and other Washington policymakers were key architects of the Good Friday Agreement. The government of today must maintain a commitment to an Ireland that is peaceful and prospering while facing the uncertainty in the United Kingdom, even if it means holding the British accountable to the agreement of 1998 during trade negotiations and diplomatic endeavors. So far, the Donald Trump administration has shown little appetite or aptitude for stepping into this controversy, which does not bode well.
At the same time, the Irish government faces difficult times ahead. Even as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been able to rally the EU behind his calls for a soft border and maintenance of the status quo, Dublin may have to prepare for an eventual poll on Irish unity. Irish nationalism is on the rise in the North. Sinn Fein is only one seat behind the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Irish polls, the narrowest gap ever between the two parties, and nationalist have overtaken unionists as the predominant political alignment within Stormont for the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, Sinn Fein have become the third largest party in the Republic of Ireland. Ireland has support in Europe, but will have to decide how to use that support to help all sides escape the conundrum created by Brexit.
British voters may not like it, but it may just be that the answer to the Irish problem lies in Brussels. Northern Ireland, and Ireland as a whole, has clearly expressed views on the EU vastly different from the UK. Northern Ireland voted by over 55% to “remain” during the Brexit Referendum and over 70% of people in the Republic of Ireland support membership in the EU. Furthermore, polling in the North suggests that more people support reunification with the Republic of Ireland as long as it remains a member of the EU (48%), than staying in a post-Brexit UK (45%). In their search for independence from Europe, British voters may have accelerated the process of UK division and Irish reunification.
As an expat and a bystander, I hope for a positive outcome for both Ireland and the UK. Right now, I see a United Kingdom more divided than ever, with no answer to the Irish Question. The United States and the Irish Government may have to intervene and demand answers and policies for solutions in the coming months.
Conor Joseph Donnan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also on the board of several non-profits including, a compassionate listening organization named Someone To Tell It To.