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Beyond the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit: Ireland in an EU of 27 Members

Barry Andrews, IIEA Director General


UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and an Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Belfast Agreement on 10 April 1998

On 10 April 1998, a historic settlement was reached by the Irish and UK governments, which brought to an end decades of violence in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was the product of years of tireless negotiating and we have seen the transformation occur before our eyes over the last two decades in Northern Ireland. The tourism industry is just one example of a sector which has seen dramatic improvement. It was unthinkable that Northern Ireland would have a booming tourism trade just 20 short years ago.

With Tuesday 10 April 2018 marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the IIEA looks forward to commemorating this important milestone with a conference, Brexit, Ireland and the Future of Europe that will bring together a panel of former Taoisigh to outline their perspectives on the 1998 peace settlement and its influence on the current Brexit negotiations.

The safeguarding of the Good Friday Agreement has been to the forefront of the concerns of the Irish government and the European Commission negotiating team in the Brexit talks. Considering the Good Friday Agreement was brought about through cooperation between the Irish and UK governments within the context of joint membership of the European Union, concerns relating to Ireland have rightly been prioritised in the negotiations thus far. This will now change as focus turns to the future relationship but Ireland cannot lose sight of securing the best possible outcome for the maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement once the UK has left the European Union.

This remains of paramount importance for the Irish government and this will require the development of a new framework considering Ireland and the UK will no longer be joint members of the EU.

Relations on the island of Ireland have developed as a direct consequence of the 1998 settlement – and relations were further enhanced through the St Andrews Agreement, which brought the DUP on board. The effect the Good Friday Agreement has had on north-south relations, east-west relations and, more importantly, the relations between communities in Northern Ireland cannot be understated.

Turning to the present and looking to the future, there is little doubt that these relations have strained as the Brexit negotiations have intensified. Northern Ireland is experiencing a poly-crisis of its own. The absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland has exacerbated strained relations as it means that the voice of Belfast is missing from this Brexit debate and instead, we are relying upon individual political parties who do not represent the region as a whole.

Beyond Brexit and beyond the consolidation of the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland will now need to pay more attention than ever to being an active EU Member State and this will involve deepening alliances and relations with countries across the Union. The second panel of the upcoming conference will examine the dynamics at play in European Union without the UK and panellists will analyse how best Ireland can navigate this new Union.

The balance of power will have shifted in an EU without the UK and Ireland will of course need to maintain its good working relationships with France and Germany. But the Irish Government will also have to be more active in coalition building. We have already seen Ireland develop its cooperation with Nordic and Baltic States. This is something that will have to continue into the future and indeed, there is potential to build alliances on issue-specific areas with numerous Member States. A question for the Irish Government however is how to reconcile an increasing focus on the EU26 with the political energy required to broker the resumption of devolved powers in the North. George Mitchell said that the road to the Good Friday Agreement was “700 days of failure followed by one day of success.” Even after 1998, many hours were dedicated to ensuring implementation of what had been agreed.

The Brexit negotiations and the absence of an Executive in the North over the last 14 months have taught us that we cannot take the Good Friday Agreement for granted and indeed, the peace process, as it has been rightly termed, is just that – a process that will no doubt continue for the next 20 years and beyond.

In some ways, the Agreement was fashioned for a multi-party system in Northern Ireland rather than the increasingly two-party system. It was designed for circumstances in which the UK and the Republic of Ireland were members of the EU. It was also designed by politicians, British, Irish and otherwise, who had prioritised an enormous amount of their time (for little gain in many cases) and who had lived through the daily horror of the Troubles in the 70s and 80s. A new generation of political leadership is in place and a reframing of the vision that delivered the Good Friday Agreement is required.

We hope that this important conference on 23 April 2018 will focus on the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement and how its provisions have come to exercise so much gravitational pull on the type of Brexit that may ultimately emerge.

Register for ‘Brexit, Ireland and the Future of Europe’ conference which will take place in the Round Room, Adjacent to the Mansion House on Monday, 23 April 2018 from 8.45a.m. here.