Leader: The return of the Irish Question

The Brexit tensions have emboldened those who reject the peace process, such as the killers of Lyra McKee.

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When Lyra McKee, a journalist and campaigner, was shot dead by dissident republicans during riots in Derry on 18 April, Northern Ireland had bleak cause for introspection. Ms McKee, a self- described “ceasefire baby”, was 29. She was of the generation that came of age in a period of uneasy but enduring peace in Northern Ireland and embodied its aspirations for a plural and tolerant future.

From a Catholic background but resolutely non-sectarian, Ms McKee had moved to the city she knew as “Legend-derry” – an irreverent gesture of defiance to the politics of division – to live with her female partner. Her murder occurred, with cruel irony, on the eve of Good Friday.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, remains an enduring achievement of modern UK statecraft. Its success lay in ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities, and old enemies came to govern together.

Yet despite delivering peace, the promise of 1998 remains largely unfulfilled. The power-sharing assembly and cross-border bodies established by the agreement have been moribund since January 2017. The row that collapsed the institutions of Stormont was ostensibly about the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive, a botched green energy scheme, but deeper issues were at play too. Since then, however, knottier questions of identity, such as same-sex marriage and legal protections for speakers of the Irish language, have come to the fore.

It would be difficult enough to resolve these issues without the complication of Brexit and the Irish border.

The May government’s ambition to withdraw from the European Union customs union as well as diverge from the rules of the single market will result in either the imposition of a new “hard border” on the island of Ireland or the creation of a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (as has been demanded by the Republic of Ireland and the EU).

Neither is conducive to a stable polity and would further destabilise the United Kingdom. Worse still, the Brexit tensions have emboldened those who reject the peace process, such as the killers of Ms McKee.

The post-Troubles generation has most to lose from the present impasse, as Professor John Bew writes in this week’s cover story (starting on page 22). At Ms McKee’s funeral in Belfast on 24 April, Father Martin Magill, a Catholic priest, asked the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, and the Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald, why it had taken the journalist’s death to bring them together. And it was notable that support for parties professing to be agnostic on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status surged in its local elections on 2 May.

Fortunately, a new round of talks to restore devolution in Northern Ireland has since begun. The parties should approach these talks in a spirit of compromise and with the determination to strike a deal to restore a power-sharing executive at Stormont. The DUP is no longer a bastion of antediluvian Presbyterianism, but it must do much more to accommodate the concerns of minorities and agree to legislate on the Irish language and equal marriage.

Westminster must also rise to the challenge. In 1993, John Major declared that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Theresa May and her MPs often give the opposite impression. Their engagement with the Irish question too often prioritises a narrow, partisan interest. The Prime Minister’s pact with the DUP and the fantasies of the hard Brexiteers have damaged a fragile political settlement. Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, sounds as if she has no interest in or little knowledge of the province.

None of this will be easy. Yet Northern Ireland has overcome worse before. In 2017, Ms McKee told an audience at Stormont that “uncomfortable conversations could save lives”. Politicians on all sides in Northern Ireland – and indeed in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland – owe it to her memory to heed those wise words.

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question