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How Northern Ireland’s ‘Good Friday’ agreement affects US-UK relations

Greg Nash

In a dispute the British press calls “The Sausage War,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson has angered the European Union by unilaterally extending the “grace period” that covers the import of British chilled meats into Northern Ireland. This technical dispute is part of a more serious challenge to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a provision of the EU-UK “Brexit” agreement that maintains an open border with the Republic of Ireland. 

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party sees more clearly now the implications of the protocol: the EU will control two-way trade with the United Kingdom. As reality has set in, Unionists see their relationship with Britain as being compromised and they have turned to widespread protest. One Unionist party leader said the protocol had a “wicked intent.” 

Before the referendum on Brexit, the first ministers of Northern Ireland — Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and Democratic Unionist Party’s Arlene Foster — signed a joint letter to Europe, Dublin and London. Irish News columnist Tom Kelly said the letter pleaded that “… the equilibrium that exists within Northern Ireland and the right to unhindered free trade, east-west and north-south” be protected. Now Foster has been forced to resign as first minister and leader of the DUP as Unionist antipathy to the protocol has grown.

Northern Ireland has managed to stay off the front pages for the past few decades as the conflict over sovereignty and religion was transformed by the 1998 “Good Friday “ agreement. In addition to opening the border, that agreement restored a degree of local autonomy and power-sharing between Republican and Unionist politicians. 

The agreement finessed the issue of the province’s constitutional status as a part of the United Kingdom by reaffirming it, unless and until a majority of voters favor changing it. Over the past 23 years, free trade and passage across the southern border has benefitted both sides and has been instrumental in keeping the peace.

President Biden, meanwhile, has been firm in stating that the Good Friday agreement is sacrosanct and that if open borders are not maintained, the British government can forget a new trade agreement with the United States. 

I first visited Northern Ireland in 1985. Wonderful people, but it was a scary place. Most public buildings were surrounded by barbed wire and heavily guarded. Empty lots in the place of bombed out buildings dotted the landscape. The Irish Republican Army and Unionist paramilitaries were waging low intensity warfare with the British military in the middle.

My host was the late John Hume, the person I believe was most responsible for achieving peace in Northern Ireland. He and Unionist leader David Trimble were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Hume had led peaceful protests on behalf of his Nationalist Republican community in the manner of Martin Luther King (his Social Democratic and Labour Party’s anthem was “We Shall Overcome”). 

There are a few Nobel Laureates who later failed to stand up to the scrutiny of history. Not Hume. The year we met in his hometown of Derry, the first keystone in his plan was put in place. He succeeded in convincing the British and Irish governments to place the dispute in a cooperative “Anglo-Irish” intergovernmental framework.

As he explained it, the two sides in Northern Ireland had “minority complexes.” The Unionists were a minority in Ireland and the Republicans were a minority in the North of Ireland. The Anglo-Irish framework enabled the two sides to begin to see themselves in a larger context and it gave Britain and Ireland a role in resolving the conflict.

Hume’s next step was to convince the IRA to abandon violence and to take a political route. He met in secrecy with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. Sinn Fein did well in the city council elections in 1985, and that helped commit its leaders to a political path.

The organization I directed at the time, the National Democratic Institute, invited Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leaders to the United States for training in get-out-the-vote and other techniques, and several Democratic Party campaign experts traveled to Northern Ireland to share their knowledge. The results were dramatic. Between 1986 and 1992 the SDLP won seats in four Westminster constituencies, along the way beating Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in the IRA’s Falls Road area, and the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell in the east.

This laid the groundwork for the next effort to expand the horizons of the two Northern Ireland “minorities.” Hume had been elected to the European Union Parliament in 1979, and in the 1990s he began to work with Unionist leader Ian Paisely in Brussels to bring EU project money into Northern Ireland. The European identity took hold to the point where Northern Ireland voted in 2016 to remain in the EU, with 85 percent of Catholics and over 30 percent of Protestants voting to remain. 

By the 1990’s the British and Irish government’s collaboration began to pay off. The British Conservative government under Prime Minister John Major was growing weary of the conflict. Hume used his contacts within the Clinton administration to convince the American government that it could engage in the peace process without invoking British charges of interference.

The stars began to align in 1997, as the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, began to work together and with the American administration. Clinton appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his emissary. Mitchell’s patient diplomatic efforts brought the two sides together and on April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was born.

The peace agreement was an edifice that took decades to build. Peace brought prosperity to Northern Ireland and, as one writer wryly put it, the society turned from violent conflict into a “mundane normality.”

I expect Unionist protests to dissolve as the economic benefits of EU trade become clearer. Meanwhile Johnson’s government should stop playing with fire. Retreating from the protocol could unravel the Good Friday Agreement. That would not only undermine the possibility of future trade agreements with the United Kingdom, it could also reignite religious conflict in Northern Ireland. That would be a heavy price to pay.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.

Tags British MPs Good Friday Agreement Ireland–United Kingdom relations Joe Biden Northern Ireland Northern Ireland peace process Northern Ireland Protocol Politics of Northern Ireland Sinn Féin Unionism in Ireland

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