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7 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:00pm

We helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement. We cannot allow Brexit to destroy it

Brexiteers grumble that the Agreement might have outlived its usefulness. Having spent month after month negotiating it, we beg to disagree. 

By Monica McWilliams

When the EU received the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, Northern Ireland’s peace process undoubtedly influenced the decision. EU policymakers were supportive of both civil society activists and programme managers throughout the worst days of “The Troubles”, when what was to become the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement seemed utopian. EU social inclusion programmes channelled resources to those disadvantaged communities bearing the brunt of the violence. EU cross-border and inter-territorial work served to forge quiet links and understanding. The finger prints of Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, were on many of the initiatives from Brussels, while European Commission president Jacques Delors was one of the first to respond to the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires. It was at his urging that the PEACE Programmes were born. To date they have delivered over €1.3bn to support some of the most difficult and sensitive peacebuilding work. The PEACE IV programme is billed to cover the period 2014-2020, providing an additional €270m. The funding is welcome, but more important is the European validation of our rollercoaster attempts to consolidate peace.

The cartoonish figure of John Bull would undoubtedly relish the Brexit rhetoric. It trumpeted British sovereignty, while English buses transported fake promises on how £350m each week would be redirected to the NHS. Having negotiated the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago, Northern Irish politicians understand – although they don’t always practice – nuance. The carefully-worded Agreement observes the unique set of interlocking and inter-dependent relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South on the island of Ireland and across “these islands” of Britain and Ireland. It notes how the North-South Ministerial Council will consider EU policies and programmes as they affect both jurisdictions. Alongside that, a British Irish Council was to consider EU issues, given that Britain and Ireland are partners in the EU. The crucial section on Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunities makes constant reference to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights as an additional guarantee. Those are the reasons why Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU, but who was listening to these arguments across the water during the referendum on Brexit, and did anyone care?

As members of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, we participated in negotiating this Agreement knowing that the European backdrop helped build local trust. Some of us even aspired to the idea that being part of the bigger geopolitics of the European Union would diminish the differences over whether we were an Irish nationalist or a British one.

This understanding helped us to move forward in the establishment of the new Northern Ireland Assembly.  When we first entered the Assembly each member was required to designate as a Unionist, Nationalist or Other. This was a method of determining that any contentious issues would be resolved by cross community consent. When the time came to elect the First and Deputy Minister (each holding equal status in this office on a cross community basis) a sufficient number of Unionists and Nationalists had to be in favour of the outcome. 

On the Unionist side, David Trimble fell short of the number of votes he required to be elected First Minister, so the Women’s Coalition (which had originally designated as “Inclusive Other”) agreed, for that occasion, to re-designate as Unionist. The Women’s Coalition Assembly member, Jane Morrice, argued that she had no problem with this arrangement. Although she was from a Protestant/Unionist background, she had instead come to regard herself as a “European” Unionist. In making the point that it was time to nudge the micro-politics of Northern Ireland on to the next stage, the Women’s Coalition was subjected to a barrage of insults and taunts from the “gentle”men on the anti-agreement benches.

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However, we stood our ground. We had become accustomed to such macho behaviour during the peace negotiations. A few days later, two members of the Alliance Party (having originally designated as ‘Party of the Centre’) did likewise which meant that the Executive could then be put in place. 

This issue of identity was frequently discussed during these negotiations. A core commitment in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was the disaggregation of citizenship and national identity. It confirmed the right of people in Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship – a right that “would not be affected by any future changes in the status of Northern Ireland”. But then along came the complication of Brexit, and all that may flow from it. It has yet to be clarified as to whether Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland will have the entitlements of EU citizens when (if) the United Kingdom departs from the EU. Will Irish passport holders from Northern Ireland be entitled to reciprocal health care in France? Can Northern “Irish” students avail of the Erasmus programme to further their education? Will there be free movement across our meandering and contested land border? As soon as we think we have an answer, certainty slips away, thanks to the power play wtithin the Conservative party.

The nature and tone of the British negotiation of Brexit to date does little to inspire confidence in how the much-heralded sovereignty will be exercised. Will the provisions and commitments of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement itself be open to “interpretation”? After all the Agreement (again with the border in mind) did state that “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of its people”. The UK Supreme Court held in its recent judgment that since it was contrary to the 1972 European Union Act to trigger Article 50, it was therefore unnecessary to determine whether the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly was needed in relation to Brexit. Arguably Brexit will change the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people, which is the reason why it puts the peace agreement in such jeopardy. After 20 years of relative peace, when we had thought we had resolved this issue, we are now wondering where the decisions on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status will be decided.

As we gear up to commemorate the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary, there are those amongst the Brexiteers who seem to question the continued relevance of the Agreement. It is, as they see it, simply a pothole on the road to British withdrawal from the EU. The MPs Owen Paterson and Kate Hoey grumble that the Agreement might have outlived its usefulness; while other leading Brexiteers were critical of the Agreement from the word go. Having spent month after month in the mind-numbing rooms at Stormont poring over every sentence and formulation, we beg to disagree. The peace process may be tentative and frustrating at times, but there are people alive in Northern Ireland today that might have been in early graves if the deal had not been agreed.

On 10 April 1998, we moved mountains to get to the peace agreement. Scorn may come cheap. But as mothers raising a family in Belfast during the dark days of conflict, it is reassuring that our young people can now go out at night without wondering how – and if – they will come home. Those of us who signed up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement cannot allow the vagaries of Brexit, and the power politics that go with it, to put all that at risk. Almost two decades later, it feels like we still have mountains to climb. But where peace is the prize there is no going back.

Monica McWilliams was a signatory to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a delegate to the multi-party peace talks in Northern Ireland from 1996 to 1998. She was elected to the first Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2003 where she represented the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. She served on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from 2005 to 2011, is an Emeritus Professor at Ulster University and is currently a member of the International Independent Reporting Commission for the disbandment of paramilitary organisations.

Avila Kilmurray was Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland from 1994 until 2015​.

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