Lessons from the Brexit debacle for our Executive debacle

On 10th April next year, familiar political figures and dignitaries (some with slightly less unscathed reputations than others) will gather in Belfast to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Northern Ireland is already in the middle of a veritable feast of commemorations, all of which illustrate the entanglement of its history with major events across these islands and beyond: the 700th anniversary of Edward the Bruce’s campaign, the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. In all cases, public commemoration has had to acknowledge the fact that its experience of intertwined British/Irish/European ‘history’ is very much a matter for contemporary contention here.

The commemoration of the Agreement will be likewise, no doubt, renewed stoking of the debate as to its intrinsic good or otherwise. However, it will also have a unique quality in that the Agreement itself is very much an on-going process rather than a one-off historical event.

Indeed, the continuing fragility of the Agreement means that we should face the possibility that its twentieth anniversary could be held in memorium. As Milena Komarova has noted, the very fact that (in its latest Brexit position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland) the UK Government has had to express its ongoing support for the Agreement could rather worryingly imply that this could ever have been in doubt.

Instead, the twentieth anniversary should mark a new stage in the Agreement – one that adapts it for stability during the earthquake in its landscape that is currently under way. The earthquake contains several minor tremors – as seen in the current state of DUP/Sinn Féin relations – but the core source of the upheaval comes from Brexit.

Constructive ambiguity in the EU and the GFA

European integration and the Agreement have shared certain qualities, not least in that the processes relied on not having an absolutely certain future end-point, but rather on a measure of common agreement as to currently shared needs. To be more precise, the success of both the Agreement and the EU have depended on the fact that different parties to them could read their own preferred outcome into the process in hand.

Few UK governments ever felt comfortable with this uncertainty – always preferring to read-in to the process some of the more extreme ambitions of European federalism. (Perhaps the lack of a written UK constitution has exacerbated this wariness).

In a similar way, hardline unionists have continued to read the Agreement as an intractable process towards Irish unification. In so doing, both unionists and British politicians have failed to realise and to grasp the power and influence that they wield in (though not over) the process right now, at this moment.

What is extraordinary about the UK’s position in the EU was that it always downplayed its hand and over-emphasised the power and unity of ‘the other’. Exactly same could be said of the DUP with regards to the Agreement and power-sharing.

The risks of rhetoric

The hubris of Cameron pushed the UK government into Brexit – unprepared, ill-informed, ideologically-charged, and wilfully reckless. It was perhaps right to hold a referendum, but it was wrong to have made the debate so purely one of polarised ideological positions. Only in the wake of the results are the hideously real implications of Brexit becoming clear and entering the discourse. The efforts of the UK government to keep it at the level of floppy rhetoric and (as Juncker terms it) ‘magical thinking’ reflect the belief that this is the best way to keep their constituency on-side. The end-point of this tactic is, however, rather close and quite indisputably harmful.

Are there lessons that the DUP should take from this crisis? Be careful lest the rhetoric you use to shore up support from your constituency by playing-up the power of your opponents actually takes on a momentum of its own. Even if you can’t contemplate the shared interests of the country, make a straightforward, realistic calculation of what is in the best interests of your constituency (not merely of short-term profile of your party). What is the point of holding onto a great poker hand when the game has morphed into Russian roulette?

The Brexit debacle has shown us: rhetoric is more than mere words, ideology does not produce answers to real problems, politics is more than a game.

Why the Agreement matters now

It is quite apt that the Agreement has a high profile in this current stage of Brexit negotiations. Again, it is a process sold on the basis of constructive ambiguity but which has the most incredibly real and sharp effects. It is those effects that politicians of all sides should concentrate on now: effects on peace, power-sharing, governance, rights, representation, prosperity.

It would be wrong to let the Agreement be treated merely as a twenty-year old peace accord between parties – it forms the basis of an international treaty with direct institutional, structural, governmental and policy consequences.

If it collapses – which well it might – there is nothing to replace it with that offers the equivalent protections for the people of Northern Ireland in the diversity of traditions and identities.

The fact that the Agreement is also a ‘live’ process means that it contains the potential for enhancement and adaptation in the changing post-Brexit environment. The UK government has recognised this in its stated desire to protect the single island energy market. There are a dozen other realms in which all-island and British-Irish cooperation can be enhanced to meet shared challenges in this uncertain world.

It is best to build upon the foundation stone we have – no matter how flawed – and to adapt it for our current needs, rather than cast it aside in a fit of party political pique. I am sure David Cameron would agree.

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  • Nevin

    “a veritable feast of commemorations”

    Here’s another one: the 300th anniversary of the 1718 Migration.

    “To be more precise, the success of both the Agreement and the EU have depended on the fact that different parties to them could read their own preferred outcome into the process in hand.”

    Surely precision would include failure as well as success in the ongoing two projects; ‘success’ reads like spin.

    “What is extraordinary about the UK’s position in the EU was that it always downplayed its hand and over-emphasised the power and unity of ‘the other’.”

    The EU is a mix of very unequal relationships as Ireland found to its cost during two referendums and the bail-out. Germany and the UK found themselves in different alliances during the Balkans debacle a generation ago.

    “hardline unionists”

    .. get a mention but equally hardline nationalists don’t.

    “it is a process sold on the basis of constructive ambiguity but which has the most incredibly real and sharp effects.”

    Quite. Ahern and Blair appeasement of loyalist and republican paramilitaries did huge damage to the fortunes of the UUP and SDLP.

    “[The Agreement] forms the basis of an international treaty with direct institutional, structural, governmental and policy consequences.”

    and not all of it is subject to parliamentary scrutiny eg the activities of the BIIC Joint Secretariat of British and Irish civil servants. Such secrecy can lead to the wrong people being blamed when things go pear-shaped.

    “offers the equivalent protections for the people of Northern Ireland in the diversity of traditions and identities.”

    No mention of the EU yet the EU offered no protection during the course of the Troubles, not least the right to life. Folk have political desires and aspirations as well as traditions and identities and IMO the 50% + 1 statement was an encouragement to heavyweights at either end of the constitutional tug-of-war rope and most certainly not a working of the common ground.

    “There are a dozen other realms in which all-island and British-Irish cooperation can be enhanced”

    This reads a bit like a John Hume quote. NI is a region of the UK as well as a region of the island of Ireland and of Europe and IMO some care needs to be taken in the balanced development of the first two.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Quite. I suppose both have their foundations in the assumption of goodwill and growing trust (or diminishing distrust) among the (unequal) stakeholders: parallel lines that ideally will converge over time in the common interest etc. Failure isn’t an option when such noble goals are being pursued.

  • Nevin

    Ahern, Blair and Clinton never stuck me as a noble combination!! As for the EU Commission, some might argue that it bribed folk with their own money!

  • Korhomme

    An interesting and informative post, Katy, thanks; I’d be in agreement with much that you say.

    You do say, “…the lack of a written UK constitution…”. I think I know what you mean. The UK doesn’t have a ‘written constitution’ but does have a ‘constitution which is written’; it’s in multiple bits, starting as ever with Magna Carta and progressing through the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the various Acts of Union etc. What the UK doesn’t have is a single document as a ‘constitution’, such as the Bunreacht na hÉireaan or the Constitution of the United States. While the Bunreacht can be amended, it is otherwise set in concrete; even more so in the case of the US Constitution. Neither is wholly reviewed and rewritten every so often, and thus becomes outdated and barely fit for purpose after a while — it becomes ‘time-expired’ or ‘past its best before date’— as life and society progress and change. There have certainly been calls for the UK to have a written, that is a formulated, Constitution and a Bill or Rights, so far this has come to nought. Any such constitution must include the requirement that it must be capable of revision every so often.

  • The EU did a hell of a lot during the latter part of the troubles. It was thanks to peace money that the community and voluntary sector managed to provide services to people despite all the difficulties and the almost absence of government under direct rule. Just look back at all the achievements of the members of NICVA.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I never said they were. Everything looked ‘noble’ or at least was presented in the frame of ‘noble’. Cassandras are often dismissed as cynical naysayers at the time. After all, people need hope. The EU was in something of a hurry but the GFA had the stamp of Clinton’s go easy approach. Senator Mitchell did come across as diligent, generous, empathetic and patient – noble enough for me.
    NB: I don’t approve of misusing exclamation marks but I upticked your post anyway.

  • aquifer

    Eamonn Mallie in the Irish TImes:

    “As long as there was an IRA campaign of violence on this island, there was a large section of the Catholic nationalist community, North and South, who wouldn’t dare state openly: “I am a nationalist.”
    In Northern Ireland these nationalists are now standing up to be counted for the first time, thanks to DUP leader Arlene Foster and the behaviour of a number of her colleagues.”

    By failing to operate the GFA, they doom Unionism.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Brexit Debacle lessons for Northern Ireland:-

    Tribal Politics is more popular than Real Politics.

    https://twitter.com/StewartWood/status/905326055778639873

    Given the effort made by DUP to get a good Brexit Debacle the tribal politics is still being kept healthy.