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15 May 2019

The return of the Irish question

Despite tensions between London and Dublin over Brexit and the murder of Lyra McKee, the Good Friday Agreement is strong enough to survive.

By John Bew

For much of the 19th century, from the time of the 1801 Act of Union, exasperated English politicians would periodically refer to Ireland as a “Serbonian bog” for British governance. The legend of Lake Serbonis, told by Herodotus and repeated in Milton’s Paradise Lost, described a quicksand-like morass, on which many sought to stand but “where armies whole have sunk”.

Try as they might, even the most well-intentioned British legislators found that their best-laid plans would sink on this treacherous terrain. Efforts to establish some sort of Irish self-governance proved no easier. By 1894, after the failure of William Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill, the London correspondent of the New York Times wrote that Ireland was regarded by most English MPs at Westminster as “a sort of Serbonian bog, whence proceeded from time to time unintelligible squeaks and groans, and through the obscurity of which vague shadows now and again may be seen flitting about, but no one seriously tried to follow what is going on or to understand what it is all about”.

Today, after a period of benign abeyance, the Irish question has reared its head once more. The context for the latest crisis is the faltering and acrimonious Brexit negotiations. Not for the first time, what happens in Ireland has implications that go to the heart of the British polity and has the potential to decide the fate of governments. Of the multiple challenges presented by the prospect of leaving the EU – likely to have a profound bearing on the soul, self-image and economic future of the British Isles – so far it is the Irish border that has proved to be the stumbling block no one can overcome.

It should not be beyond the wit of man to find a viable solution to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland, fitted to the 21st century, given that this is everyone’s professed aim. Looking around, from London to Dublin and Belfast to Brussels, however, it is not easy to see who has the requisite leadership qualities to guide us to this point.

On the one hand, leading Brexiteers have done their cause serious harm by failing to anticipate the obstacles to their project the Irish border would present. But there is an embarrassing knowledge deficit on all sides of the debate. Tellingly, this includes some of those who have styled themselves as defenders-in-chief of the Good Friday Agreement – claiming to shield the peace process from the Brexiteers – but whose familiarity with its complex and finely-tuned internal functioning is partial at best.

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One reason why the Irish border issue has been so troublesome is that it sits atop another political impasse. Northern Ireland’s devolved power-sharing institutions have been suspended since January 2017, having broken down over incompetence and allegations of corruption (concerning the Renewable Heat Incentive) and been kept asunder by self-interested and sectional agendas. For most of the past two years, the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, have shown no great urgency to bring the Executive back. Although there may now be some movement on that front, the vacuum of governance is likely to be felt more keenly as Northern Ireland approaches the traditionally turbulent summer months.

It would be misleading and irresponsible to exaggerate the threats to peace in Ireland, beyond the types of challenges the security services have been dealing with for years. But the levels of antagonism have increased considerably since 2016. Anglo-Irish intergovernmental relations are in their worst state for many years, causing one of the most important pillars of the peace process to wobble. Amid all the hand-wringing, two things are true at the same time. First, the political settlement created by the Good Friday Agreement has been destabilised by Brexit, as many feared it would. Second, some of those who claim to be defending the agreement, in opposition to Brexit, have risked making the situation worse.

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And yet, for all this, the recent local election results in Northern Ireland on 2 May suggest that people there are willing and able to look beyond Brexit. Against all expectations, the chances of getting the peace process back on track have increased in recent weeks.


It is now almost a quarter of a century ago since, in the fraught early stages of the peace process in August 1995, Gerry Adams addressed a Republican rally in Belfast centre and someone from the crowd shouted: “Bring back the IRA”. His quick-fire reply, “They haven’t gone away, you know”, was greeted with cheers from his followers and considerable trepidation elsewhere. He went on to promise the crowd that Sinn Féin would destroy the “British connection” in Ireland.

This was no idle threat. In February 1996 the IRA broke its ceasefire with a bomb in Canary Wharf, east London. And yet, over the course of the following two years, the peace process was painstakingly rebuilt. This lead to another (permanent) IRA ceasefire in July 1997 and the Good Friday Agreement of Easter 1998. That deal, signed by the British and Irish governments, ended 30 years of sectarian civil war. More importantly, unlike previous government-led efforts, it was supported by a plurality of local parties and a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland (71 per cent) in a subsequent “Yes/No” referendum.

Having initially been non-committal about joining a power-sharing administration, Sinn Féin cleverly cast itself as the party most central to the peace process. Having opposed the negotiations vociferously and campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement, Ian Paisley’s DUP joined the Executive in 2007, working alongside Sinn Féin. Thus, the accord – for all its imperfections and subsequent crises – has broadly remained in place for the past 20 years, ensuring no return to the violence of the past. While the road has sometimes been bumpy, it has provided the basis for a relatively resilient peace.

Contrary to Adams’s bravado, then, the Provisional IRA did go away, decommissioning its weapons. Sinn Féin failed to break the British connection because the central historical fact in Northern Ireland – the desire of a majority to remain in the UK – had not changed over the course of its campaign. In 2018, 20 years after the deal, the most noteworthy thing that Gerry Adams did was publish a cookbook.

Much of life in Northern Ireland has become normalised in a way in which those born before the 1990s never imagined possible. Nevertheless, the ongoing battle for the past – how it is owned, interrogated and explored – is one of the legacy issues that still shapes the political atmosphere today. The question of where the spotlight shines and how much money is spent on unearthing the truth remains the subject of bitter debate. While there have been a number of high-profile inquiries, more than a third of killings carried out from 1969 to 1998 are still being investigated by police. Most of them are likely to remain unsolved.

One of those unsolved murders is that of the Reverend Robert Bradford, the Ulster Unionist MP who was shot dead in his constituency surgery in a community centre in Finaghy, just south of Belfast, on 14 November 1981. Like many other such instances during the Troubles, the attack also took the life of a bystander: a 29-year-old caretaker called Kenneth Campbell.

Bradford had been a talented footballer in his youth, trialling at Sheffield Wednesday before training as a Methodist minister and gaining something of a reputation as a religious and political hardliner. In a notorious incident at his funeral, the Northern Ireland secretary of state Jim Prior, a Conservative, was accosted, jostled and berated by angry loyalists outside the church for his failure to tackle IRA violence.

There are other reasons for recalling Bradford’s murder today. The first is that he is credited with coining the oxymoronic moniker “Queen’s Rebels” by which Ulster loyalists are sometimes described. This is a group that trumpets its fidelity to British institutions but has always been willing to rebel against the establishment whenever it feels its place within the Union is under threat. Despite considerable pressure from the Conservative government in the run-up to the most recent meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons on 29 March 2019, the Queen’s Rebels tradition proved itself alive and well among DUP MPs.

Contrary to the suggestion that another billion-pound bung from the May government would douse righteous indignation, the party’s aversion to the controversial backstop proved far more important in its calculations than its nominal support for Brexit. That many of the DUP’s erstwhile friends in the European Research Group blinked at the last minute to back the May’s deal did not go unnoticed by the DUP, the Tories’ “confidence and supply” partner.

And then there is the unlikely connection between Bradford and Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist shot and killed while observing rioting in the Creggan area of Derry on 18 April. In many ways, the two came from different worlds, as well as different generations. Lyra was a wonderfully modern emblem of the “post-Troubles” generation in Northern Ireland. Once named by Forbes as one of the rising stars under the age of 30 in European media, she rose to prominence after writing a letter to her 14-year-old self in 2014, describing the challenges of growing up gay in Belfast. Less well-known is the fact her first book, Angels with Blue Faces, was due to be published imminently. It was based on her tireless independent research into the murder of Robert Bradford.

It is to the eternal credit of Lyra McKee, from a Catholic background but unambiguously ecumenical in her outlook, that she chose this subject. And it is a bitter irony that just weeks before the book’s publication, she was shot by a gunman from the so-called New IRA. The organisation claimed to have “deployed our volunteers to engage” the police – “British Crown forces” – in the name of the same ideological agenda held by those who murdered Bradford almost four decades before.

“I don’t think Northern Ireland can move on and become a ‘shared society’ until we have answers – answers about why law-abiding citizens like Robert Bradford were murdered,” Lyra wrote when appealing for funding for her book project in 2013, “We must not forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in peace.”


One could argue that there has already been a perceptible Lyra-effect in the pressure it has put on politicians to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. At her interdenominational funeral, at the Protestant St Anne’s Cathedral in central Belfast, the Catholic priest, Martin McGill, chastised the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin for their obtuseness in negotiations. As they sat awkwardly a few pews from the front, the rest of the congregation rose to a standing ovation behind them. Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, were also present. Within a day of the funeral, after almost two years of stasis, the British and Irish governments agreed that new talks to reform the Northern Ireland Assembly would begin on 7 May.

There are others who will prove harder to dislodge from their bunkers. Chief among them are groups such as the New IRA and its political wing, Saoradh. As historian Marisa McGlinchey, author of Unfinished Business: The Politics of “Dissident” Irish Republicanism, points out, those involved in hardline Republican politics do not regard themselves as dissidents. Many are former members of Sinn Féin or the Provisional IRA who never bought into the peace process. Going further back still, they regard themselves as the true inheritors of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that declared independence from Britain. It was not the EU referendum that caused their upsurge in activities in the last three years, but the centenary commemorations of the martyrs of Easter 1916.

Some half-engaged observers of Irish politics made an implicit link between the murder of Lyra McKee and the ructions caused by Brexit. In fact, as McGlinchey argued in a recent article in the Irish Times, the absence of a functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland may have contributed to polarisation, “but the actions of the New IRA are not a consequence of the political vacuum. Nor is the escalation of activity by the New IRA a consequence of Brexit.”

As the organisation made clear in a statement after a bomb attack in Derry in January, none of the talk of a hard or soft border will make any difference to its campaign, so long as there is any British presence on the island of Ireland. That should not lead us to complacency, of course. As McGlinchey also warns, “Brexit and Northern Ireland’s political vacuum are seen as opportunities to be exploited by republican groups, who have described the collapse of Stormont as evidence that Northern Ireland is a failed state.”

Ageing well: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton mark 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement in April 2018


In June 2016, just before the EU referendum, I wrote in these pages about the irony that the English were rousing themselves in the spirit of protest – the long-predicted “English Revolt” – just at the moment when nationalism in Northern Ireland and Scotland might have reached a plateau. Although Northern Ireland’s Catholic population was growing faster than its Protestant population, the nationalist vote had not risen in sync. Polling figures before Brexit suggested that support for a united Ireland had declined considerably in the preceding years. The soft, unenthusiastic de facto unionism that exists in portions of the Catholic community seemed to support the status quo.

Then came Brexit. Overall, Northern Ireland voted 55.8 per cent for Remain. The Catholic-nationalist community were almost universally opposed to leaving. It was easier to acquiesce to the Union as part of a larger and more vaguely defined unit – the European Union – in which many forms of identity could exist side-by-side. The creation of uncertainty about the future constitutional status put the national question back in play. The revival of a more assertive British nationalism was not a welcome sight. As talk of a hard border returned, Sinn Féin could not believe its luck. After a period of stasis, the party achieved a significant boost at the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Assembly election in March 2017, vindicating its new strategy of calling for a border poll (a referendum on Northern Ireland’s status).

A significant portion of the unionist community also objected to Brexit. While the DUP supported it, the second largest unionist party, the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party, campaigned against leaving, but now accepts that the result must be respected (both parties remain seriously concerned about the “backstop” provisions in May’s proposed deal). And just as Sinn Féin surged at the 2017 local assembly election, so the core sectarian dynamic reasserted itself as the DUP had its own counter-surge at the 2017 general election. There are many unionists disconcerted by Brexit, but only a miniscule number for whom this would mean the abandonment of the Union.

In Dublin, the Irish government’s undisguised horror at the unfolding drama added another ingredient to the cocktail. Unionists have become increasingly wary of Leo Varadkar. The Irish Taoiseach has styled himself as the saviour of the Good Friday Agreement against the careless British government, winning plaudits from committed Remainers in the British media who see him as the paragon of reasonableness. But unionists in Northern Ireland – including many who voted Remain – are dubious about his role and regard him as agitating in a way driven by Dublin’s strategic self-interest.


The very act of Brexit created potentially grave danger to the Irish economy; after all, the UK is the land-bridge to Europe for the vast majority of its exports. Varadkar is also justified in pointing out that Brexit upsets the psychological equilibrium that underlays the peace process in Northern Ireland. He is not the only one to be exasperated by the lack of planning for something with such profound consequences; that the British government is dependent on DUP support is another source of irritation.

Yet the Irish government, despite the holier-than-thou posture, is not above politicking. At the start of the process, under EU pressure, it abandoned close Anglo-Irish co-operation in favour of a privileged position as part of an EU27 bloc. Varadkar has revelled in this status, although he is now slumping in the polls. With the British government asleep at the wheel, the Good Friday Agreement has been appropriated by the Irish side in a way that is causing growing disquiet in Northern Ireland. Even the most impeccably liberal and anti-Brexit of Ulster’s political grandees, the former Alliance Party leader, John Alderdice, has talked publicly about his concern that Dublin is falling back into the old trope that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.

Indeed, if anything demonstrates the British state’s unpreparedness for the post-Brexit age, it is the way it has been outplayed over the border issue by the Irish government and the EU. There are various theories as to why, in the early stages of the negotiations, it ceded to Dublin’s demand for a backstop. This was a promise to maintain an open border in the event of no deal being made on future trade (increasing the likelihood of Northern Ireland being asked to diverge from regulations in the rest of the UK to remain aligned with the Republic, or potentially forcing the UK to accept a customs union as a whole to resolve the problem).

The most likely explanation was that the British side, consumed by so much else, was on the back foot from the start. Brexit was a shock to the system of the civil service and a prime minister in May who has struggled to stay across the detail throughout; the idea that it was being irresponsible on matters of peace had to be rebutted at once. This led the government to accept, without due consideration, the argument that an ill-defined backstop was necessary, should no suitable wider trade deal be agreed. It boxed itself into a corner from which it has struggled to emerge, provoking the opposition of the DUP (whose support was vital for any chance of success). The failure to anticipate this may yet be what proves fatal to Theresa May’s deal – and her premiership.


One of the many ironies of the backstop is that everyone, including the DUP, is firmly opposed to the return of a hard border. Another is that, in the event of no deal, Dublin will be forced by the EU to insert a hard border itself to protect the integrity of the single market.

Moreover, the existence of a frictionless border in Ireland is one of the dividends of peace, not something that was central to the original accord. In the text of the Good Friday Agreement it was barely mentioned at all. Instead, the key democratic principle underlying unionist support was that Dublin’s enhanced role would be accountable to a locally elected assembly. Under the terms of the backstop – a top-down imposition insisted on by Dublin – this principle is effectively undercut. This is why Paul Murphy, the former Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland and a key figure in 1998, says that the negotiators of the backstop did not pay enough attention to the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement. This problem would solve itself if there was a time limit on the backstop, but whichever scenario emerges from the Brexit talks, that point is likely to be academic now.

After clumsy negotiating and endless bloviating, however, the dynamics within Northern Ireland give grounds for cautious optimism. After all the destabilising twists and turns caused by Brexit, this is now a moment of relative hope. It is true that the DUP and Sinn Féin are still – by a long way – the two leading parties. But the results in the recent local elections show that their respective levels of support, rising solidly since 1998, have hit a ceiling – and that other voices are making themselves heard.

To the party’s surprise, Sinn Féin’s share of the vote actually fell on 2 May. The strategy of focusing all its efforts on raising the alarm about a hard border was less successful than it had thought. The DUP vote rose marginally but the party hierarchy was perturbed by a new dynamic – particularly visible in Belfast – where a significant portion of the Lyra McKee generation appeared to switch towards the Alliance and the Greens. This means that the DUP modernisers, who were keen to support their first openly gay candidate, will not give up despite criticism from traditional religiously conservative elements in the party. The Alliance Party has a chance of taking a seat at the forthcoming European elections.

Local politicians report that the continued failure to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly was more of an issue in these elections than Brexit. This may be because the likelihood of a hard border seems to be receding in any outcome (particularly one that involves some sort of customs union). A growing number of voters therefore focused on “normal” issues – particularly health and education – and demanded that the parties return to Stormont. The divisive issue of the Irish language remains unresolved but it should be recalled that the DUP and Sinn Féin came quite close to an agreement on this in the past. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is likely to be brought to a conclusion by an independent inquiry due to report in June.


Brexit has destabilised the Union. But in Northern Ireland, its most troubled quarter, its effects have been mitigated by the surprising resilience of the Good Friday Agreement, now aged 21. The foundations of the historic compromise have been shaken but remain in place; it has withstood its hardest test and seems to be edging towards a return of its devolved Executive. Setting aside the radical agendas of some marginal groups, such as the New IRA, there are signs of further normalisation of the electorate as a whole, as it demands its representatives return to the table.

If the Brexit negotiations between May and Jeremy Corbyn fasten on to some sort of customs union – by whatever name – then the Irish border issue and the effects of the backstop may be somewhat reduced (if not entirely resolved). If the talks collapse, and the Conservative Party opts for a leader committed to another negotiating path out of the EU, then the backstop will be fully back in play. The EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement is unlikely to be changed and the Irish government and EU are unlikely to back down on the text. But there is room for manoeuvre on how its terms are defined (in a way that might calm unionist concerns in Northern Ireland). Goodwill is at a low ebb and yet the differences on the practical functioning of any backstop are nothing compared to the differences in the last week of negotiations before the Good Friday Agreement. Both the British and Irish governments could do well to remember their own responsibilities under that accord and could do worse than try to rediscover the spirit of 1998. l

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London

[See also: How the Brexit battle over the Irish border throws the peace process into jeopardy]

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