Wednesday, 8 June 2016

EU debate doesn't impact Good Friday Agreement, but it exposes its 'conjuring trick'

European flag outside the Commission

The Good Friday Agreement was a clever, influential document because it defined a political struggle over sovereignty in Northern Ireland in terms of a much more slippery concept: identity.  No piece of paper could tell people whether they were British or Irish or both, and the prerogative of people born here to take citizenship of the Republic of Ireland existed long before 1998, but the agreement reassured voters that their professed identities would be recognised and respected under new power-sharing arrangements.

Northern Ireland is now in the midst of another emotional debate about sovereignty as UK voters decide whether to stay in the European Union or opt for ‘Brexit’.  Alongside practical arguments about the economy and the Irish border, some campaigners have tried to suggest that the principles which underpin the Belfast Agreement could be undermined by a vote for ‘Leave’.  The foolish implication is that Irish identity in Northern Ireland is dependent upon membership of the EU. 

That is a dangerous idea, which underestimates the extent to which relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are on a solid legal footing and overestimates the reach of the Agreement.  All the practical rights of citizenship, residency and freedom of movement, exercised by Irish people in the UK and vice-versa, are enshrined in British and Irish law, most of it predating Good Friday 1998, not to mention Britain’s accession to the European Union. 

Anyone born in Northern Ireland will still be entitled to citizenship of the Irish Republic and, by extension, citizenship of the European Union, whatever the result of the referendum.  Likewise, the Republic is not regarded in British law as a foreign country and, if its citizens are resident in the UK, they have the same rights to live, work and vote as British citizens.  Some arguments are ongoing about how the Irish border might operate, in the event of Brexit, but there’s no serious suggestion that free movement across the British Isles would be restricted.

As for identity, the Brexit debate has shown that it is an elusive concept in comparison to sovereignty.  The Belfast Agreement determined that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future should be decided by a majority of voters here, but it also switched the central focus of politics to more abstract questions around culture and identity.  The arguments over the referendum don’t impact materially on power-sharing or other totems of the ‘peace process’, but they do threaten to expose the Agreement’s most successful conjuring trick.                         

Campaigners on either side of the referendum debate are using emotive arguments to support their points of view.  However, come the 24th of June, we’ll all still have to share the same region and confront the same issues, whatever the final result.  It’s irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that either the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is under discussion.    Whether the UK decides to remain in the EU, or leave, no-one’s identity is under threat and no-one will be any less British or Irish, after the votes are counted.  

This article is published in today's News Letter.

1 comment:

ItwasSammyMcNally said...

Owen,

Unionists (including your goodself) have sought to play down the significance of the potential damage of Brexit to the 'Peace Process' or how it might undermine the GFA.

Tactically this is a sensible argument to advance - Unionists can hardly be seen to argue for an outcome that might result in Ulster sliding back towards violence. For many Unionists of course an increase in divisions which are minimised by the both North and South being in the EU would be welcome - though this is not likely to be said publicly - though instinctively(some) unionists will hope that Brexit makes them less part of an All Ireland - economically and culturally.

Whether the GFA in spirit or in letter will be undermined by Brexit remains to be seen - as we dont know yet what it actually means - but so say categorically that it wont at least in part undo the progress made since 1998 simply smacks of an argument of (Unionist) convenience.