Four months ago Jonathan Powell warned that the ‘Good Friday’ agreement of 1998 that ended 30 years of killing in Northern Ireland was at risk. “What worries me is the casual political vandalism. They really don’t seem to care (about) the damage they are doing to the very fragile political settlements in Northern Ireland.”
‘They’ are the British government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has never shown any concern for the subtle and delicate peace deal that former prime minister Tony Blair and Powell, his chief of staff, wove a quarter-century ago. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Johnson even understands it.
For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, last weekend’s election saw Sinn Fein, a Catholic, ‘Nationalist’ party that is pledged to unify Northern Ireland with the ‘Republic of Ireland’ that occupies the rest of the island, win the largest number of seats.
This dismayed the three political parties that split the votes of the former Protestant ascendancy between them, but it didn’t surprise them. A higher Catholic birth rate has already produced a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland’s schools, and perhaps by now in the whole population as well.
Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, avoided any triumphalist talk about a referendum on unification with the Republic and focused on bread-and-butter issues. The party’s overall leader in Dublin, Mary Lou McDonald (who may become the Republic’s next prime minister), sent a message saying “Don’t be scared. The future is bright for all of us.”
But a lot of people in Northern Ireland are scared, and not just Protestants. Twenty-five years of peace is not long enough to forget the previous 30 years of what was effectively a civil war, when people only a few streets over might see you as the enemy and sectarian bombings and murders were a daily occurrence.
The old fears and hatreds are clearly diminishing in Northern Ireland among the generation born since 1998 (and in some of their elders too). But many believe that it’s too soon to gamble on a peaceful transition to a post-sectarian all-Ireland republic.
It would only take a few dozen diehard ‘Loyalists’ (Protestants) to derail such a process: there are undoubtedly plenty of guns and explosives still hidden away. The militants would lose in the end, but only after years of violence and a whole new wave of fear and hatred.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland may be starting down this road, because the Good Friday deal says that any Northern Irish government must be a power-sharing entity in which a ‘first minister’ and a ‘deputy first minister’ are drawn from the two biggest parties. No government can be formed without both.
‘Deputy’ is just a word – the two ministers have exactly equal powers – but to Protestant hardliners it represents an intolerable demotion. In a deliberate act of sabotage, the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is refusing to accept the ‘deputy first minister’ role.
The rules say that if no government can be formed, there must be another election within twelve weeks. If that election doesn’t have a different outcome – and why should it? – then it’s back to the ‘direct rule’ from London that prevailed before the Good Friday agreement. At which point the Catholic hardliners probably start mobilising too.
None of this is inevitable, but the great project of the English nationalist party, the Conservatives, makes it much more likely. That project was Brexit, which automatically required the re-creation of a real border in Ireland between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, still a member of the European Union.
The magical part of the Good Friday deal was to make that border invisible: no customs check, no passports, nothing. So Catholic Nationalists could pretend they already lived in a united Ireland, while Protestant Loyalists could pretend that ‘power-sharing’ didn’t really mean things had changed. But when the UK left the EU, that fiction died.
To keep the border invisible, Johnson had to move to it the middle of the Irish Sea, leaving all of Northern Ireland in the customs union of the EU. The customs checks now happen on ships and aircraft coming from Britain to anywhere on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland.
The Loyalists feel betrayed and abandoned, and they’re right. Secretly, most English politicians have wanted to unload them for decades now, so unification will still happen eventually. The problem with trying to do that now, before generational turnover has done its work, is that there may be one more round of violence before it happens.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War