Time to be bold, let politics work and “arrest the spiral of unlearning we seem to be on”…

Reconciling Ireland by Richard Humphreys which details and analyses 50 Agreements between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom received an official online book launch hosted by the Irish Association and Queen’s University on 31 August.

Asked by facilitator Freya Mc Clements, Northern Ireland correspondent of the Irish Times, which of the Agreements he would describe as a favourite, the author opted to nominate the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

In addition to his personal association with the process that led to the Agreement he referred to it as a “triumph of diplomacy.”

I am reminded of the words of pollster  Frank Luntz:

 You can have the best message in the world but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices and pre-existing beliefs.

Diplomacy may have been a contributing factor but there are many not so close to the internal trade-offs and ground rules who see it as peppered with ‘constructive ambiguity’, compromises which stretched the hearts and minds of those who came to endorse it and not a little heavy-handed persuasion, bordering on coercion.

That so many voted to accept the Agreement with its imperfections is testament, as much as the effort of diplomats, to the deeply felt desire for peace and accommodation than diplomatically resolved ‘ugly scaffolding’.

Political Agreements and their outworking can heat the house or burn it to the ground. That the Good Friday Agreement has been treated as a political accessory of Trojan Horse proportions has ensured that from time to time the flames of constitutional entrenchment are of sufficient strength to burn rather than heat.

The fervour of debate leaves small space for impartiality or critical thought.

Richard Humphreys is maybe looking at the frame rather than the picture. Are the diplomats who have mapped the NI Protocol and those resistant to necessary amendments which do not fit neatly with partisan agendas, engaging with the task of addressing its flaws in similar fashion?

As the EU continues to play within boundaries where there is a need to play with them, an inventory of its impact provides much to persuade that this is the case.

Beyond the loud voices of growing resistance to the NI Protocol within loyalism and political unionism, support for the EU and recognition for a protocol – type compromise, has and continues to evaporate quietly amongst those unionists who voted to remain.

Politicians fixed to the position that the Brexit decisions at Westminster were key to the economic and political ramifications of the Protocol have a valid point to make. The willingness of the Government under PM Boris Johnston to endorse it cannot be dismissed as anything less than cavalier.

However, merely blaming someone else for everything is an incredible waste of time and to do so whilst failing to acknowledge that problems have been compounded by the Northern Ireland ‘special case’ stance of the EU, will not contribute positively to finding solutions.

Fuelled by historical imagery of a security border and the potential return of semtex politics, the EU stance is driven by a hit and run one- handed, rather than even-handed, hold on the political narrative.

As its implementation unfolds disproportionately and the Protocol predictably assumes constitutional significance, is the ‘special’ emerging as ‘extra-special’ for nationalism, with an increasingly All-Ireland economic agenda as the default position?

The level-playing field which the EU champions is tilted south. Trade is being diverted to the island of Ireland with exports from the Republic of Ireland northwards growing by 43% whilst higher business costs of bringing goods from Great Britain reaches a point where firms are ceasing to trade thereby reducing consumer choice, undermining the internal market and exposing Northern Ireland to profiteering; in addition, Government is having to make available significant finances to assist businesses in coping with paperwork.

The estimated cost to the Northern Ireland economy, as cited by leading economist Esmond Birnie in the Irish Times, is £850 million. This presents as a market as rigged as it is single.

As a result, Northern Ireland is being spun into the orbit of an economy, much smaller than the United Kingdom, which is dependent on Anglo-American investment flows – 75 % of recent Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland came from the USA (58%) or the UK (17%). In addition, its favourable tax arrangements which incentivise business are under close scrutiny and reveal a vulnerability which Northern Ireland does not need to share.

Economics are not politically neutral so politics are equally compromised.

If, as Richard Humphreys suggests, the GFA was a triumph for democracy, is the legacy being undermined and its possibilities side-lined as all the EU can offer by way of solution is rules and quasi-diplomacy. A majority comprised of the nationalist-minded parties supported by Alliance seem content with this but sometimes a majority simply means that all the intransigence is on the one side.

The Good Friday Agreement in spite of claims otherwise is not protected in all its dimensions.

Lack of unfettered trade East-West, threats to medication and extended ‘grace periods’, a democratic deficit and barriers to full articipation in future UK trade agreements evidence the situation that pertains.

Speaking during a period prior to the NI Protocol, the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA, former SDLP MP, Mark Durkan Senior, stated:

“ …. agreement for shared democratic responsibility, mutual adjustment, reconfiguring conflicted or neglected relationships in Ireland and across these islands, embedding peace and growing reconciliation is precious but with unfulfilled promise and delicate health.

No one should presume that it is immune from a rupturous impact like Brexit and the changed circumstances it creates for the future.

People will sense that the Agreement’s careful interlay of relationships and structured engagements have been pushed out of kilter …… Many want to avert such political regression and arrest the spiral of unlearning we seem to be on.”

Mark Durkan, Senior, played a pivotal role in shaping the Good Friday Agreement and knows it as well as, if not better, than most. His words now resonate with the post-Brexit NI Protocol.

It is ironic that the EU which is positioning itself as protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process to present as a co-guarantor, which it is not, is, to use Mark Durkan’s words, pushing it ‘out of kilter’.

That the Good Friday Agreement with its 3 Strands, All-Ireland Bodies, a CTA and over 140 examples of cross-border communication, according to an audit by the NI Civil Service and the EU, is not deployed to address many of the issues now arising from a bargain basement Protocol is surely an opportunity missed.

Instead the EU has opted for a roadmap which is delivering a meandering journey as the ramifications of its economic absolutism unfolds. It lends weight to the argument that inside any conflict is an opportunity for agreement that died young.

The EU has taken us on to terrain where neutral ground is hard to sustain and needed to read the situation better. The threatened triggering of Article 16 and indiscriminate action with regard to vaccines is a prime example. Prolongation in finding solutions to ‘goods at risk’ and other issues pertaining, simply contributes to uncertainty, instability and a sense of incompleteness which threatens to become a recurring pattern as grace period follows grace period.

To make the complex work requires creativity and flexibility as all sides need to use the situation better; to find space between the ambitions and limitations of current decision-making.

Perhaps there is some growing awareness that good sense needs to prevail.

In calling for change and pointing to the expenditure being targeted at keeping a protocol process in place pending amendment, Lord Frost is avoiding the ‘negotiation’ word. In response to the UK extending grace periods indefinitely, the EU has, for now, been content to ‘take note’ and there are suggestions that the technocratic EU Commission may be more open to flexibility than the more political European Council.

In Dublin, apart from the playground and mildly entertaining ‘I told you so ‘antics of TDs like Neale Richmond on Twitter and elsewhere, Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar seem to be positioning towards a conciliatory and pragmatic agreement.

However, good intentions on their own will not deliver this.

It is clear that the EU does not trust the United Kingdom and sees some conspiratorial reasoning in its tactics. However, the greater concern is that the EU appears not to trust itself in leading all to providing a solution to a situation which it must realise by now, is unsustainable.

It needs to be bold and let politics work. That would be a fitting Epilogue to a revised edition of ‘Reconciling Ireland.’