Protecting the Good Friday Agreement is essential

Protecting the Good Friday Agreement is essential
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America must not neglect the tensions building in Brexit negotiations over the Irish border with Northern Ireland. It’s past time President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE appointed a special envoy — we cannot let Brexit drag us back toward The Troubles.

Ireland is a small nation, but in the day-to-day business of the global economy the Irish punch above their weight. Under the leadership of their new, young Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose visit to Washington this week is to include a White House meeting today, Ireland is standing its ground in the ongoing Brexit discussions between the United Kingdom and the European Union.  

Backed by the EU, the Republic of Ireland has drawn a line in the sand: the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland needs to remain open. Thousands of citizens of both countries commute back and forth without friction, while millions of dollars in products move between markets effortlessly. Brexit puts all this commerce in jeopardy — and worse. The 100-mile border between the Republic and Northern Ireland has become one of the flash points of contention between the UK and the EU. 

While the United Kingdom says it also supports a frictionless border, it has yet to offer any concrete solutions to EU counterparts how Ireland’s 300 checkpoints would work after Brexit. We must not forget that for the Irish, the border is an emotional, historical and political scar across the island. Needlessly re-creating a hard border will resurrect ancestral memories of the partition of Ireland in 1922. And there are citizens on both sides of the border who still vividly remember the militarized border of the Troubles, as British troops sought to prevent the IRA from crossing and receiving supplies. 

This should weigh heavily on the United States. Twenty years ago, President Clinton successfully drove a diplomatic effort to broker and secure the peace process which after two years of negotiations chaired by Sen. George Mitchell led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. That enormous achievement should not be taken for granted. 

Both President Bush and President Obama made a pointed effort to continue this success by appointing seasoned special envoys and representatives including Mitchell Reiss, Paula Dobriansky and former Sen. Gary Hart. We were extremely pleased with the recent announcement by outgoing Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Kudlow says Trump 'looking at' reforming law on bribing foreign officials Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book MORE that a new special envoy to Northern Ireland will be appointed. With Trump’s choice of CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Overnight Defense: Trump downplays troops' concussion injuries in Iran attack | Dems offer case against Trump on day two of trial | UN links Saudis to hack of Bezos' phone Pompeo willing to testify in impeachment trial if 'legally required' MORE to take over as our top diplomat, America needs to step up.

The bitter sectarian divide between the Unionist and the Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland has reemerged with the collapse of the devolved government over a year ago. The death of Martin McGuinness, along with two bitterly contested elections, reminds us that Northern Ireland remains deeply polarized. Neither side is willing to concede on contentious issues such as the Irish language and resolving legacy matters. The failure to find common ground after a year of negotiations between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to restore the devolved government has only made matters worse.

In recent weeks, pro-Brexit advocates in London have realized that the Good Friday Agreement may become a significant roadblock in their quest to leave the EU. So they are foolishly trying to discredit the mechanism that ended The Troubles. This enormous mistake can only resurrect old animosities over the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland. Over 140 cross-border agreements — on everything from transportation and waterways to food safety and tourism — derive from rules built into the Good Friday Agreement.

The principle of consent at the heart of the Agreement has managed the volatile issue of identity in Northern Ireland for 20 years. Consent has given both the Unionist and Nationalist communities the confidence needed to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, while continuing the hard, grinding work of reconciliation. The recognition of complexity, consent, dual citizenship, the need for North-South Councils and functioning implementation groups created by the Good Friday Agreement offers the scaffolding for a post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU. 

Ireland remains in the EU. The majority of citizens in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. So, Northern Ireland’s uniqueness must be respected, not only by London but also in Washington. While the United States must wait the outcome of the Brexit negotiations regarding the border, it can — and should — make every effort to stand behind the Good Friday Agreement that it did so much to bring about. Appoint a special envoy now, before it’s too late.

Bruce A. Morrison (D) is a former congressman from Connecticut who co-chaired the Ad hoc Committee on Irish Affairs. 

James T. Walsh (R) is a former congressman from New York who chaired the Congressional Friends of Ireland.