For the sake of clarity, all sides should stop spreading myths about Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement

Ignorance and special pleading about the Good Friday Agreement and its relationship to Brexit and the border has been a feature of angry comment that has followed the collapse of the Stormont talks.

The Daily Express led the pack

The Good Friday agreement explicitly stipulates there cannot be a hard border on the island of Ireland, leaving Brexiteers launching impassioned arguments on the deal.

It does nothing of the sort.

Even Adam Boulton who speaks with the great authority on matters which preoccupy the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble was shaky about power sharing.

That “mandatory coalition” was the essence of the devolved government for Stormont proposed in 1998. Neither side could move forward without the acquiescence of the other. If Sinn Fein, as the leading representative of the nationalist community, had its veto removed, as some are proposing, the alternative would be de facto majoritarian rule by the Democratic Unionist Party, representing unionists, that would take Northern Ireland back to the casus belli of the Troubles and 3,600 deaths.

This of course is nonsense on stilts that needs no explanation here.

Isn’t it ironic that commentators across the water who only occasionally dip into Northern Ireland are in general more concerned about the threat of violence arising from a hard border than most  people who live there? Remainers and Leavers alike have also invented a game of Brexit and the Border without much regard for the facts.

GFA sceptics like Owen Paterson Jacob Rees Mogg and Daniel Haanan made no attempt  to establish a clear connection.  At least Kate Hooey drew attention to the drawbacks of the stiff mechanism of power sharing  which were tightened  by the St Andrews’ Agreement.

The other side of the argument are at it as well. From Dublin Fintan O’Toole simply takes the direct link between Brexit and the GFA for granted as an article of faith;

The reality is that Brexit’s true believers have only just woken up to the fact that the 1998 treaty, which is effectively a part of the UK’s constitution, makes the hard Brexit they desire virtually impossible. The EU made it abundantly clear that the Irish question and in particular the protection of the agreement is central to any final deal.

Is  this tantamount to arguing that Dublin has a veto on Brexit because of the GFA?  What is the precise argument for it? It is hinted at, not specified. There is a shadow of a case that GB has no say in the North’s constitutional future because the GFA specifies that it rests on the self determination of both parts of Ireland only.  Brexit affects the constitutional position and the UK therefore cannot apply it to Northern Ireland  unilaterally. But this self determination relates specifically to Irish unity. Brexit does not affect it.

The GFA also accords equal status for Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland.  Arguably, Brexit will deprive Irish-EU citizens of rights guaranteed by the EU Charter of Human Rights, adjudicated by the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg. But one remedy for this, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is  provided for in the GFA.  It is blocked by the unionist parties but could be revived by interparty agreement or at the insistence of the British government.

The problems of Brexit are obvious. They must be shared through the major part of the GFA that is robust, the British -Irish relationship which is more necessary than ever. It is a different argument that Brexit will collapse through  the weight of its  own contradictions.

Surprisingly Homer nods a little over local history when O’Toole writes in support of power sharing:

The Ulster Unionist Party, which went on to take the office of first minister in the person of its leader David Trimble, had taken part in a power-sharing administration at Stormont as far back as 1974.

Strictly speaking yes, but only for a single month. Brian Faulkner was deposed as leader of the UUP by a new anti-Sunningdale  majority in the party’s council and formed his own Pythoneque  Unionist party of Northern Ireland. It was a traumatic moment in the Life of a different Brian.

Any suggestion therefore that David Trimble was part of an unbroken unionist party tradition is misleading. The Trimble I knew in 1974 was part of the tiny intellectual wing of the semi-fascist Vanguard movement which began as a UUP faction but seceded to become its own party and movement. It was briefly bigger than the DUP. It held rallies with its own storm-troopers waving sinister-looking  banners  and issuing blood-curdling threats  to the IRA.  The former Unionist minister  Bill Craig was its nominal leader. Later he was the progressively uneasy front man for the Ulster Workers’ Council (in reality little more than a UDA front), whose strike brought the Executive of 1974 down in four months .

Only months later Craig performed a U turn and proposed a voluntary coalition. but with little preparation it was  quickly shot down. To be fair to Trimble he supported Craig in what was perhaps a harbinger of things to come, as he remarked years later when he was fighting a losing battle for his political life

The first of these was a voluntary coalition. Personally I have no problem with this idea. It is of course associated with Bill Craig who put the idea forward in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975. I was a member of that Convention and I supported Mr Craig. Well, we were clearly ahead of our time.

These points show that the sinner who repenteth is in the detail as well as the devil. Perhaps history will repeat itself  and hopefully a bit more quickly. It would help too if they clarified their arguments.

Ruth Dudley Edwards claims the role of midwife to the whole controversy in an article she wrote for the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph headlined:

“The collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland shows the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use’, it was retweeted by many others, enthusiastic Brexiteers like Conservatives ex-Secretary of State Owen Paterson and MEP Dan Hannan, and Labour MP Kate Hoey.

Ruth has now written a careful explanation of what she was on about in the Sindo. Inevitably it focused on the deficiencies  of power sharing  rather than the British-Irish relationship. I think she might have hinted in the piece  that the headline was misleading .


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London