Don’t Mention the War: Legacies of the Troubles and Their Impact on Brexit

Is this the calm at the centre of the hurricane? The eerie, robotic, delusional calm of Brexiters as they respond with condescension to the exasperated questioning of journalists that of course there are digital and technological ways of monitoring the border, and of course the EU needs the UK more than vice versa, and it is bound to cave in “when they see the whites of our eyes”; the “calm bewilderment” of the EU as they survey the unfolding horror in Westminster described by Irish MEP and vice president of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness?

In my new ebook Don’t Mention the War: Exploring Aspects of the Legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles, I have called the Brexit shambles a tragicomedy. The surreal irony is that centre and forefront of the stage on which it is playing out lies the Irish border and the “backstop” – the mechanism originally designed both to fulfil a promise by Mrs May to Northern Ireland that there would be no return to a hard border, and to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement – when Northern Ireland figured not a jot in the debates or government calculations prior to the referendum. 

Ironically, also, while there have been some good television news features on life and attitudes on the border in recent months, Brexit has not led to any discernible increase in awareness in Britain of the complex post-conflict reality in Northern Ireland. The flurry of attention given in the British media to the bomb scares in Derry, worrying of course in themselves but probably a red herring in terms of the overall picture, would have occurred Brexit or no Brexit as it was a reminder of the Troubles, virtually the only type of news from Northern Ireland, that makes it into the headlines. The border and the backstop feature hugely now but are strangely disconnected from their local context.

It is one thing to see Northern Ireland through the myopic and highly selective lens of Brexit and another to see Brexit through the lens of Northern Ireland’s stalled peace process, to place Brexit in the context of a range of unresolved “legacies” of the Troubles, which is what the book attempts.

I have claimed in the book that there have been factors at play, within and beyond Northern Ireland, since 1998 which have increasingly and cumulatively weakened the peace process, and that vulnerability has been severely exacerbated by Brexit.

For example, since 2016 – the referendum and the election of Donald Trump – the entire geo-political axis which nurtured and embraced the Good Friday Agreement has shifted and weakened. The Good Friday Agreement depended to a greater or lesser extent on the personal relationships between Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern and George Mitchell. It was as equal members within the EU that a new relationship was forged between the UK and Ireland, away from the highly charged conflict zone of the Troubles. 

It is often pointed out that the GFA is an international, legally binding treaty, which commits the UK, the US and Ireland to supporting it. In reality, under Presidents Bush and even Obama, and certainly Donald Trump, who couldn’t give a fig about Northern Ireland, US government interest in Northern Ireland has waned. Due to Brexit, relationships between the UK and the EU, between the UK and Ireland have also deteriorated. The personal and international bonds that sustained the fragile agreement have dwindled.

Thus the most vocal international defender of the Good Friday Agreement is now the EU, including Ireland, as a committed member of the EU and with the greatest vested interest, with the backstop the profound and stubborn symbol of that defence.

I have argued in Don’t Mention the War that the Good Friday Agreement should be seen not only as a document but as a process, which has stuttered, like a car running out of fuel, through the last twenty years, undermined at various points by unionist interventions. For example, the blocking of the Eames-Bradley Report and of the regeneration of the Maze prison. Not only were there acknowledged lacunae – including matters of ‘the past’ – that needed to be addressed post-Agreement, but not enough attention has been given to monitoring and embedding the content as well as the spirit and soul of the peace process, a weakening of which came to a head with Martin McGuinness’s resignation in January 2017 and his fundamental stipulation that there would be “no return to the status quo”.

It was because of Brexit that the June 2017 election was called, leading to the Tory/DUP confidence and supply arrangement, giving the DUP unprecedented influence including the opportunity to roll back the Good Friday Agreement, which they did not sign. Furthermore, the Tory/DUP pact made any restoration of the Assembly unachievable in principle, because it further compromises any pretence – moot in any event as I have suggested in the book – of “neutrality” or a mediation role for the British government and the Secretary of State in Northern Irish affairs. 

The power-sharing called for by the Agreement implies partnership, and partnership implies in this context equality of power between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the possibility of which is eradicated by the Tory/DUP pact. Whether the DUP would in any event want to go back to an Assembly where their hold on a majority hangs on a thread is another question of course. For them, Brexit may be their last chance saloon. 

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Don’t Mention the War: Exploring Aspects of the Legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles by Vicky Cosstick, with artworks by Rita Duffy, is an ebook, designed to be read on any device with the Kindle app and published on Amazon on Monday 4 February.  It includes chapters on the experience of women, systemic and transgenerational trauma, the Good Friday Agreement and the media. It will be launched on Monday at the Dark Horse in Belfast. 

The panel includes Rita Duffy, Professor John Brewer, Clare Bailey MLA, Denis Bradley and will be chaired by Connor Daly, Editor of Northern Slant, which has supported the publication of Don’t Mention the War. The author also thanks Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, which part-funded the research for the book.

The ebook can be ordered in advance at the early-bird price of £4.99 from Amazon.

For information on the launch and extracts from each of the chapters go to Northern Slant.

Free registration for book launch on 4th February via Eventbrite is here.