The Good Friday Agreement was built on the understanding that Northern Ireland can’t be run on the basis of narrow majoritarianism, and that political stability requires the interests of both its communities to be taken into account.
That’s why the Northern Ireland executive is established by power-sharing, its Assembly needs majorities of both communities to pass important measures, and North-South and East-West joint UK-Ireland structures were established to secure the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
“Parity of esteem” was the phrase used during the negotiations. This is the underlying principle that allows Northern Ireland to stay within the United Kingdom, while acknowledging its close relationship to Ireland and the specifically Irish identity of the Nationalist community.
But just like between 1912 and 1914, when the then Tory leader Bonar Law threatened armed insurrection in Ulster against Irish Home Rule, Brextremist Tories – anti-EU members of my own party – are putting the UK union they claim to care so much about at risk through their hardline views.
Most people in Northern Ireland understand their region needs a special status after Brexit, one that reflects the existence of two communities there and the ambiguity that increasing numbers of Northern Irish people feel about their identity. They accept that if a hard, militarised border is to be avoided in Ireland, some inspections of cargo between Northern Ireland and Britain will be needed and additional spot checks on people travelling in spite of the Common Travel Area arrangements.
Crucially, this includes most people who identify themselves as unionist and Protestant. The results of a Lucid Talk poll last December have been confirmed by more recent research by the University of Kent. Despite its best efforts, the Democratic Unionist Party has not been able to make separate practical measures to govern trade after Brexit for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK a focus of sectarian identity.
The latest version of this Brexit special status is the backstop that the UK government agreed to last December with the EU 27 Joint Report and again more recently in March. This would, in essence, keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and in the single market for goods trade but not services. As I argue in a report to be published shortly, this ‘Hong Kong’ style “one-country, two economic systems” model is a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland to stay in the UK while also gaining many of the benefits of EU membership.
Nevertheless, this week the hardline Brexiteers from the ERG faction won votes in parliament to prevent Northern Irish people taking up this offer separately from the rest of the UK by making it illegal in British law (the EU has already rejected the extension of special status to the whole UK, as that would give London a back door into the single market without requiring free movement of people, European court of justice jurisdiction or EU budget contributions).
They claim they’ve done so to safeguard the union, but they’ve actually put it in danger. They’re imposing the views of the DUP, which, through its “confidence and supply” agreement, is essential to the government – but which only got 36 per cent of Northern Ireland’s vote at the last British General Election, and which only represents one part of one community.
But the union is only secure when it is accepted by both communities. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that principle and entrenched it as an international treaty. Now the Brexiteers are threatening its foundations.
They are doing so in the name of a trumped-up idea of unionism not justified by history. Unionism has historically in fact been entirely happy with “divergence” from the rest of the UK: during most of the twentieth century, Northern Ireland had its own “government” and prime minister. More recently, the DUP has actively sought divergence from the rest of the UK, and alignment with the Republic, on VAT, air passenger duty and corporation tax.
The fact is that the Brexiteers don’t really care about the union. They are English nationalists whose lifelong ambition is to sever any links between the England and the EU and they’ll destroy anything in their path, including peace in Northern Ireland, to get it.
The disregard they’ve shown for the people of what is, after all, territory they say they want to keep within the UK is astonishing. Their ability to threaten the government in Westminster now raises serious questions about whether London has the capacity to uphold the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement.
We may well be reaching a situation where people in Northern Ireland conclude that the rights of all communities in Northern Ireland, including the unionist community, will be better served by the institutions of the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement, operating within the framework of a United Ireland.
Charles Tannock is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament.