Whatever people think of Tony Blair, nobody could dispute that the Good Friday Agreement, which he secured 23 years ago on Sunday, was an extraordinary achievement.
The credit was not his alone, of course. Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern, John Hume, David Trimble, Jonathan Powell, George Mitchell, Mo Mowlam, John Major and many others including – yes – Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, played vital roles. But it was Blair, more than anyone, who kept the proverbial show on the road.
He persevered despite countless setbacks. He surmounted endless obstacles. He frequently flew to Belfast for meetings that would last late into the night and occasionally all night, immersing himself in the arcane details of the province’s highly complex dynamics. He took some astounding political risks, including inviting to No 10 representatives of an organisation – the IRA – that had mortared the building only six years earlier. He made previously unthinkable concessions, including the release of several hundred paramilitary prisoners convicted of bombing, killing and other acts of terrorism.
Peace in Northern Ireland was not top of the British public’s wish list. There were no votes for Blair in pursuing it. He made that stupendous effort because it was the right thing to do, and the result was a triumph for the art of political dialogue and compromise after 30 years of bloodshed and violence.
Blair’s great achievement is now being dangerously, almost criminally, undermined by a successor who neither understands nor cares about Northern Ireland; by an English nationalist who had scarcely visited the province until a few years ago, and once likened the hugely emotive century-old scar that is the Irish border to the congestion charge boundary between Camden and Westminster; by a prime minister who did nothing as the police battled loyalist rioters each night last week beyond issuing a solitary tweet saying how “deeply concerned” he was at the violence (it is hard to imagine such insouciance had the riots had been in Birmingham not Belfast, or London not Londonderry).
Johnson certainly should be “deeply concerned” at the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland because he is in large part responsible for it. Despite warnings from Blair and Major, he led the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum without giving a moment’s thought to the fact that Britain’s departure from the EU would inevitably require the resurrection of a land border between the UK and Ireland, or a new one in the Irish Sea.
In November 2018 he told a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) conference that “no British government could, or should, sign up to” the idea of a border in the Irish Sea that would render Northern Ireland “an economic colony of the EU”.
The following November, after becoming prime minister, he assured business leaders in Belfast that trade between Britain and Northern Ireland would remain “unfettered” with “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind”, and that any customs forms should be “put in the bin”. A month after that he told Sky News there was “no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI”.
In August 2020 he again insisted that there would be a border down the Irish Sea “over my dead body”. But that is precisely what Johnson, in his desperation to “get Brexit done”, had agreed in the withdrawal agreement that he struck with the EU the previous December, and then rammed through parliament with minimal scrutiny.
Put bluntly, our Prime Minister shamelessly lied to and betrayed Northern Ireland. He then sought to soften the blow by threatening to renege on the international agreement he had solemnly signed, thereby trashing the UK’s reputation as a law-abiding nation.
Johnson must now face the consequences of his reckless and deceitful words. The agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol does much more than impede trade across the Irish Sea. It leaves the province a de facto member of the EU single market and customs union, subject to thousands of rules and regulations over which it has no say. It breaches the Good Friday Agreement’s central tenet – that there should be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of both its Unionist and nationalist communities. And it divides Northern Ireland, economically and politically, from the rest of the UK.
Small wonder that Unionists, and loyalists whose “Britishness” is so sacred that they still sing the national anthem in pubs at closing time, are furious (though the DUP must also bear some blame as it campaigned enthusiastically for Brexit).
Last week’s violence may or may not abate this week, but the months ahead will remain perilous – to put it mildly – for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. A whole generation of young loyalists has been raised on tales of their fathers’ derring-do during the Troubles. They have been taught that the Good Friday Agreement was a defeat that has resulted in endless concessions to nationalists and republicans. They have seen their counterparts on the far side of the “peace walls” prosper, while they themselves still live in some of the UK’s most deprived housing estates. They have been badly let down by their politicians, with Stormont paralysed by sectarian stand-offs for years at a time.
Compounding their sense of beleaguerment, Brexit has put Irish reunification back on the political agenda. The new census is expected to show Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time in the province’s history, and Sinn Fein could well become Stormont’s largest party in next year’s elections, making its leader, Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first minister.
The evenings are lengthening. The lockdown is easing. The marching season looms, as does the potentially incendiary centenary on 3 May of Ireland’s partition and the creation of Northern Ireland. The loyalist paramilitaries have certainly not gone away, though they have metamorphosed into criminal organisations and they have officially suspended their support for the Good Friday Agreement.
Tony Blair is long gone from Downing Street, alas. So are almost all those other visionary and committed leaders who engendered the fragile peace of the past 23 years. Instead we have Johnson – a callow, lightweight and duplicitous prime minister who long ago squandered whatever trust and authority he enjoyed in the province, and has little idea how to tackle the gathering storm.