I thank the committee for the huge privilege of being asked to come here today. I am speaking in a personal capacity, having spent a long time working on the issue of reconciliation and community relations in Northern Ireland. That is the basis on which I have tried to frame my remarks. I also teach politics in the university, so I have an interest in the consequences and the procedure as to how we go forward. I produced a very long paper of which the second half is essentially irrelevant because it just provides background material. The committee will be glad to know that I will speak to the first part only. I will speak to the first part and then perhaps read a little bit of it, because it is something worth reading into.
The first thing to observe is that we have arrived at the crisis in Northern Ireland with almost no preparation. The issues have emerged after Brexit. Even in the context of the referendum itself, the issues of Northern Ireland largely surfaced through being raised by the Taoiseach and former Prime Ministers. Inside Northern Ireland it was remarkably quiet. The turnout figure was very low at 62%. The lowest turnouts anywhere in the UK were in the constituencies of Belfast West and Foyle. It was in areas that voted to remain that people were least likely to vote. It has subsequently turned into more of an issue and we have caught up with it. That is a problem because the preparation has been very limited.
The second thing to note is that this issues hits across the pivotal institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I do not need to labour the point that the Agreement has been the central development in Irish-British relationships over the last 50 years and has framed Northern Irish politics since then. I have written in my submission that "Reconciliation replaced conflict, dialogue and partnership replaced conflict and enmity and mutual accommodation replaced mutual antagonism". These have been huge, historic shifts and I believe they were understood to be historic in Ireland. The Governments were central to the Agreement and the reason that Brexit matters so much is that anything which divides the purposes of the British and Irish Governments is very serious for Northern Ireland, perhaps even more serious than the people of Northern Ireland take it to be. It is also, perhaps, more serious than the people of the United Kingdom take it to be.
The Governments framed these talks. That is the truth of the matter. The Anglo-Irish agreement process, the framework documents, the negotiation behind these things, the sponsorship of the talks, the mediation in crisis and so on were all sponsored through inter-Governmental partnership, which was a critical element of the talks. There were built on a series of international principles, human rights not being the least of these, but which included treating citizens of the two countries equally within both, the opening of borders and freedom of movement. These principles may have been implicit or explicit but they were nevertheless there.
I have identified at least six dimensions of inter-Governmental issues which seem to be critical and explicit in the Agreement. These dimensions are: the question of citizenship and how it is defined; questions of consent on the Border and of identity and constitutional nationalism; changes to the Irish Constitution; the parity of esteem doctrine which says that Britishness and Irishness will be treated with parity of esteem; the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South bodies which relate to it; and the British-Irish Council. It strikes me that this is not just a Northern Irish issue but an inter-Governmental issue and that the Good Friday Agreement is touched by anything which changes those things.
While we have had continuous devolution in theory since 2007, we have had at least eight mini-breakdowns all of which have required the mediation of the Governments working together in order to put the Assembly together again in some form or other. The framework of the Good Friday Agreement was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We run the risk that when some things become not agreed, everything becomes not agreed again. It all unravels.
This is where I might read some of my submission. I tried to frame my remarks around three questions. The first was whether any party to the Good Friday Agreement have any formal intention of abandoning it. My view is that it seems certain that for the vast majority of voters, and the Government, in the UK, the decision by the UK to leave the European Union was not taken with any intention of breaking or abandoning the Good Friday Agreement. In some ways this highlights a difference between the received view of the Good Friday Agreement in Great Britain as a largely successful pragmatic compromise specific to Northern Ireland and that on the island of Ireland, where it is understood as a dramatic and historic exercise in constitutional and political innovation between two states, achieved through very delicate compromises and balances. Even the Good Friday Agreement’s detractors on the island of Ireland, and there are many, acknowledge its significance.
For voters and Government in the UK, any impact on Ireland is unintended collateral, but not malicious. We may therefore have to reckon with the fact that the potential implications of the decision to leave the EU for the Good Friday Agreement and hence of Ireland North and South are not fully understood or acknowledged in the UK itself. If this is true, this would mean that there has been no preparation for the extreme delicacy and attention to detail required to renegotiate its fragile balances within a short timeframe. More importantly, the assumption in the UK is that the Good Friday Agreement has to be altered to bring it into line with the prior order issue of Brexit.
The assumption in many parts of Ireland is that Brexit must be designed in such a way as to protect the existing commitments of the Good Friday Agreement. This mindset difference is, in and of itself, a significant challenge. All of this is a significant challenge to any concept of reconciliation, which remains the purpose, core and at the heart of what the Agreement was to deliver.
Does the UK’s decision to leave the EU create significant problems and challenges for the structures and assumptions on which the Good Friday Agreement is built? The answer is "Yes". The Agreement was only possible because nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. In this context, unilateral action by one signatory inevitably has consequences for the overall ecological balance and sustainability of the entire deal. I have outlined four levels at which I see these challenges arising. The first is at the tacit and implicit level. In terms of the underlying assumptions, unilateral action by one party in a formal partnership has inevitable consequences for other parties. When that party is a government, inevitably, those shocks are greater.
Second, it is clear that the sense of shock and concern about the Good Friday Agreement is not equally recognised even by those who opposed or supported Brexit. Those who support Brexit see that as illegitimate interference in a sovereign decision, with the potential that they would be resented. Those who hold their Irish citizenship as their primary identity or who value the international partnership of the Agreement have exhibited shock, confusion, anger and grief. Above all, there is an underlying feeling of betrayal in that commitments made had been broken without a second thought, and with indifference to the consequences for peace and the sacrifices that were made to get us this far. In a divided society, the most important aspect is that these very different emotional reactions polarise and divide, with huge consequences.
Third, at institutional level, the Good Friday Agreement was above all a new compact on how Britishness and Irishness would relate in Northern Ireland, in Ireland and between these islands. The institution of physical borders, trade borders and cultural borders of any sort is an unanticipated development of huge implications. Given that the Border is now caught up in global economic and political questions, it may not be possible to make accommodations which are first and foremost designed to meet local requirements.
That in turn raises the unique citizenship arrangements in Northern Ireland. The Agreement establishes the birthright of everyone born in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish or both as they may choose, in perpetuity and aside from all questions of constitutional change. Equal treatment and access to goods and services is guaranteed to both. The State must act with parity of esteem to both traditions and is committed to cultural rights. Furthermore, Ireland has a special interest in Northern Ireland and has an established State presence through a Department of Foreign Affairs, DFA, office in Northern Ireland. The President of Ireland makes informal unheralded visits to communities, institutions and events without obstruction. The consequence is that both Britain and Ireland, and through Ireland the European Union, will have an enduring and unique shared interest in the people and territory of Northern Ireland that makes it distinct, and only operable through co-operation and mutuality.
The Good Friday Agreement states that "the functioning of the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other". Unsurprisingly, the North-South Ministerial Council was deigned to "consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements to be made to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings".
Exactly what happens now is unclear. What is certain is that without the agreed North-South Ministerial Council and cross-Border bodies funcitioning there is no constitutional basis for the Assembly to function. At its most acute, North-South co-operation has been critical in justice, policing and security. The Patten commission explicitly promoted co-operation with the Garda Síochána. The Fresh Start agreement set up a joint task force, and there are regular cross-Border actions against crime, including terrorism and smuggling. Those are some of the constitutional issues.
With regard to principles, the European Union is built on a number of core assumptions which might be held to be implicit in the Good Friday Agreement and its development. Some of them are explicit such as the human rights charter. In broad terms, these can be characterised as human rights, the four freedoms, and equality of opportunity. Given that they are implicit rather than explicit, the way in which they interact can be complex, but there can be little doubt that any fundamental derogation from any of them
threatens the balance of a divided society.
Technically, the European convention is an instrument of the Council of Europe, not the European Union. Nonetheless, any threat to unilaterally alter the UK’s relationship with the convention and the court would have significant potential ramifications for the Good Friday Agreement where it is a core element in the construction of the institutions. The four freedoms are not explicitly addressed in the Good Friday Agreement. However, it could be argued that their spirit - freedom of movement for labour, capital goods and services - have been the central practical outworking of the Agreement in Ireland. Any change to those freedoms will alter the lived experience of post-Agreement Ireland in a fundamental way, challenging the Agreement less at the level of its technical formulation than at the level of lived experience.
That takes me to the social and economic level. The Agreement has had a profound effect on the social and economic life of Ireland, North and South. Any unintended consequences of Brexit will therefore impact not only on the relationships of sovereign states but on the quality of life of communities and families and on the economic future of the island. While economic and business relationships, including cross-Border enterprises, thriving trade and extensive infrastructure, have taken most of the attention, the social implications for cross-Border commuters, cross-Border families and communities rejoined since the Agreement through programmes such as PEACE and INTERREG should not be overlooked. In addition, any hard land border between the UK and the EU will be placed precisely where the costs of these changes will be greatest and where resistance is most deep rooted and determined. The geography of the Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland matters, posing the question of how any border could be imposed, who would impose it, how tariffs are to be collected and monitored and how immigration is to be controlled.
The search for solutions to these problems is urgent, but it is likely to be time consuming and politically contentious. Furthermore, there is no agreed Northern Ireland position on these matters and, in so far as they touch on issues of identity and constitution, there is unlikely to be one. The fact that the EU has established that these issues are prior to any discussion of trade must be correct, but the potential for this to cause growing frustration in the UK and among those supportive of Brexit in Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. Furthermore, any prospect that as a result the UK would crash out of the EU is potentially disastrous for Ireland in the context where these issues still are not addressed and there is growing recrimination.
Some steps to be taken suggest themselves in a practical way. The two most serious threats to peace in every divided society and therefore in Northern Ireland are fundamental political uncertainty, which is filled by people taking action, and significant unilateral action in the face of partnership where people believe that it is broken. Brexit raises both of those issues in an unexpectedly vivid form. It is therefore incumbent on all parties to move past the "Keep calm and carry on" phased to the next phase which my be characterised as "Let us now make plans to address these issues before they become unmanageable". Failure to do that will leave both uncertainty and mutual recrimination in terms of partnership in place, with the potential for it to fester.
By raising the question of Ireland as a prior order issue, the EU should make clear that its priority regarding Ireland is sustaining and growing reconciliation. This could potentially become a shared goal of negotiations if the United Kingdom could also be encouraged to see sharing reconciliation in Ireland as the goal of negotiations rather than simply a question of protecting national trade interests. If reconciliation is the goal, and the protection of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, North and South and between these islands requires flexibility and unique arrangements, then both sides should be encouraged to signal that these will be explored in-depth. The substance of the negotiations should be to identify the potential incompatibilities between the existing treaties and agreements and Brexit; and to establish an agenda for resolving these issues, which includes the negotiators, the Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland.
There is no consensus in Northern Ireland about Brexit. Any attempt to force one in advance is likely to result in lowest common denominator minimalist agreements leaving all of the contentious issues unaddressed. Northern Ireland must be present in its plurality in the negotiations. The alternative is that any deal will have to be imposed with considerable long-term consequences. The existing frameworks of the Agreement - the North-South bodies, the British-Irish Council and the intergovernmental conference - could be focused on problem solving around this issue. There is also an urgent need for renewed civic voice for solution finding in this situation.
One of the key issues to be addressed is the nature of the Border and its management. There is no point anymore in simply saying the Border could run down the Irish Sea or it could be hard or it could be soft; we need to get down to that discussion. The other key issues are the future competences of the three strands within the Good Friday Agreement and their interlockingness because those matter. These are citizenship rights and equality issues that underpin the Good Friday Agreement and which probably need to be reiterated in some form; trade and economic relationships; and the ongoing support for reconciliation, including three areas which seem to still be the past, present and future with the frameworks of dealing with the past, the fresh start and a shared future, in other words, building for a different future.