Progress through peace: Northern Ireland 20 years after 'The Agreement'

Progress through peace: Northern Ireland 20 years after 'The Agreement'
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Strolling the 310-mile stretch where the Republic of Ireland meets Northern Ireland, one would need a discernible eye to notice the straddling of two completely separate countries. From one side to the other, the road signs flip between miles and kilometers, the cash in one’s wallet becomes either more or less useful, but the sensation is not so different from crossing between Connecticut and New York. That is mostly thanks to the soon-to-be 20-year-old agreement known as the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement, which has been the primary building block for peace in Northern Ireland.

The agreement also is responsible for turning what once was a gauntlet of ID checks and aggressive pat-downs and searches into a free-flowing border where people commute back and forth from their jobs with two different currencies in their pockets and where goods move freely in both directions.

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The contrasting dynamics of relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland today, versus 20 or more years in the past, is nearly impossible to comprehend, let alone put into words. Progress has been tremendous and the world is a significantly more peaceful place for it. Even so, 90 percent of children in Northern Ireland still attend separate faith schools and housing segregation exists, among other signs of the old days that still loom large. There is peace, but it’s a fragile peace.

 

On top of all that, a political vacuum in Northern Ireland and the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union simultaneously threaten to turn back the clock on the island by creating border and custom disputes and stoking old social and religious differences. The world is watching, and Britain and Ireland must work together to address the current challenges and threats to the cherished peace they have worked so hard to achieve. While the notion of peace and stability in Northern Ireland has not been at the forefront of the American foreign policy consciousness for quite some time, that would change if peace and cooperation were to unravel in any significant way. Millions of Americans of Irish descent would pay more attention to the situation at the border and the U.S. government might follow. This issue is bigger than Northern Ireland. 

The end of negotiations on the agreement that ended “the troubles” coincided well with the rise of the European Union’s single market and monetary union. With Northern Ireland (United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland essentially sharing in the same economic system, the border became more ambiguous and gave people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to identify as British, as Irish, or as both.

And despite nagging issues that remain today, the combination of the agreement and the streamlined economic system helped give those interested in peace on the split island a more common vision, and provided individuals the freedom to identify. It opened up the border, which is likely why a majority of people in Northern Ireland broke from some of its other U.K. counterparts and voted “no”  in the U.K. referendum to leave the EU. That is in part because many still remember the indignity of what it was like to cross the border 20 years ago, and have legitimate concerns about the impact that tariffs and limited access to skilled labor would have on businesses across every corner of the island.

As the border issue is taken up, it is essential that those in Northern Ireland maintain their ability to identify as British, Irish or both. Furthermore, five principles must be considered and protected with regard to the introduction of any new policies:

  • The peace process must be protected first and foremost;
  • Common travel areas for those who cross the border with regularity must be respected;
  • Any new rules should not result in economic isolation along the border, as the areas along the border rely heavily on the free-flow of goods and people in both directions;
  • We should seek to avoid any physical impact to the border — it should remain invisible;
  • And finally, the key to these norms being protected is for Belfast and Dublin to work bilaterally to resolve tensions by developing and strengthening relations, rather than focusing on their differences.

The nonprofit Co-operation Ireland has existed since 1979, dedicated to helping build a peaceful and sustainable island where people of all backgrounds live and work together for a better future. Much like in the past, when we’ve facilitated monumental relationship-building events such as the queen’s first official trip to Dublin, our strategy is to bring together leaders from both the Democratic Unionist Party and the Sinn Féin political parties, social justice fighters and others in a quest toward common ground.

We will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the agreement on Feb. 21 to celebrate two decades of progress and to help create a dialogue for the future with influential leaders from across the island’s political spectrum in order to find cooperative solutions to the serious challenges that lie ahead.

Our stated mission is to sustain peace by helping to build a shared and cohesive society, and unfriendly borders and walls do not make for a shared and cohesive society. There is still tremendous work to be done towards inclusion, equality and fairness in my part of the world on issues such as school segregation and employment equity, but we must also protect the significant progress that has been made.

At this stage, no one can know for sure how this complex and historically challenging situation will play out, but we must ensure that peace and shared prosperity continue to prevail over the suspicion and bigotry that once ruled the day.

Peter Sheridan is CEO of Co-operation Ireland, a nonprofit that works to promote and encourage interaction, dialogue and practical collaboration between the peoples of Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.