I have a question to ask of all those who argue that Brexit undermines the Good Friday Agreement because the GFA is ‘predicated’ on an open Border and Brexit creates a hard, i.e. closed Border.
In 1973, the British and Irish governments, along with a majority of the Northern Ireland political parties negotiated and agreed the Sunningdale Agreement which created three institutions: an Assembly, a power-sharing Executive and a Council of Ireland.
Many have argued, including myself, that the Sunningdale Agreement was a more impressive and powerful deal than the Good Friday Agreement and had the potential to move the North towards an all-island settlement of some sort.
The principal reason was this: the creation of a body called the Council of Ireland. It was agreed at a December 1973 conference in the Berkshire town of Sunningdale in England, involving the British and Irish governments and the three parties who would take seats in the Executive, i.e. the Unionists led by Brian Faulkner, the SDLP and the Alliance Party and it had these two key features:
– A Council of Ministers consisting of seven members of the power-sharing Executive and seven members of the Irish government.
– A consultative or advisory Assembly consisting of thirty members of the Irish parliament and thirty members of the NI Assembly.
Both these bodies, the Council of Ireland and the consultative Assembly would have an inbuilt Nationalist majority. The council of Ministers would have had a Nationalist majority, since Nationalist members of the Executive would combine with the Irish government members to carry a majority on the Council and thereby, theoretically at least, outvote the Unionists every time.
The same logic applied to the consultative Assembly, since the thirty Dail members and the SDLP members of the Northern Assembly could combine to outvote the Unionist/Alliance bloc from Belfast.
The Council of Ministers was the more powerful of the two bodies. It would have ‘executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role’, whereas the consultative Assembly would only have ‘advisory and review functions’.
In that Council of Ministers it is possible to glimpse the embryo of an all-Ireland Cabinet. And it was this that helped fuel the Loyalist resistance, which was ultimately successful, to the Sunningdale deal.
Unionists regarded the Sunningdale deal, the Council of Ireland especially, as such a threat to the union with the UK that the Loyalist strike called by the Ulster Workers Council won popular support and drove moderate Unionists out of the Executive, collapsing Sunningdale.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is, or maybe was, a much more modest arrangement by comparison.
For instance, the 1974 deal stipulated a simple majority for decisions in the Assembly/Executive while the GFA demands mandatory ‘cross-community’ rules for votes on certain key issues in the Assembly and Executive. That was done, inter alia, to win Unionist support.
A watered-down set of North-South bodies with more limited terms of reference than in 1974 provided the second part of the deal and much more modest British-Irish institutions replaced the powerful 1974 Council of Ministers.
In 1974 an SDLP member of the Assembly could describe Sunningdale as ‘the vehicle that would trundle unionists into a united Ireland’. In 1974 few, aside from the then isolated Provisional movement, would disagree. No-one has made the same claim for the Good Friday Agreement in 2019. Nor could they.
So, there can be no doubt that Sunningdale was a much more powerful deal than the GFA.
Yet in 1974 the Border was as ‘hard’ as any Border can be, yet no-one singled that out as a threat to the Sunningdale Agreement.
It didn’t matter to the Sunningdale agreement what sort of Border was in place. All that mattered was that Unionists and Nationalists agreed to share power according to the terms of the deal.
In that respect the GFA is no different. All that matters is that the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to make the deal work. Whether the Border is hard, soft or middling matters not a whit.
The claim that the backstop at the Irish Border insisted on by the EU in any Brexit deal had the potential to pitch the North back into violence was first made by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and almost immediately it was accepted unquestioningly by EU member states and even some in the British camp.
I suspect that in his desperation to avoid what could be an economic disaster for the South, Varadkar peddled the hard Border whopper to his EU colleagues and they, eager to embarrass and discomfit the Brits, happily went along.
It helped that it has been more than two decades since the mainstream IRA fired a shot in anger and a whole new generation of journalists and politicians, ignorant of what the Troubles were about, happily accepted Varadkar’s nonsense and so it has taken off and become the accepted wisdom about Brexit.
The failed Sunningdale agreement tells us two things which have passed today’s journalists and politicians by. One is that the nature of the Border played next to no part in its demise; and the second is that the NI problem is not so much defined by the existence of the Border but how society is ordered within its bounds.
So my question is this: Why should the GFA be any different than Sunningdale in this respect?