Twenty Years After the Belfast Agreement

A Historical Review on the Troubles and Brexit Implication to Northern-Ireland’s Future

By André Moreno

“I’ve seen cruelty and injustice at first hand; so, then one fateful morning I shook bold freedom’s hand; for right or wrong I’d try to free my land”

This excerpt, taken from The Wolfe Tones’ song Joe McDonnell, refers to a terrible period of British history. The Troubles were a conflict of great violence in Northern Ireland, in which an ethno-nationalist catholic minority fought against the British Army for civil rights and unification with the Republic of Ireland. However, the Irish nationalist feeling refers to the island’s cultural renaissance, in the beginning of the twentieth century. Conflicts between Catholics and the Protestant population of Ulster date back to 1916, peace has prevailed for several decades in Northern Ireland, established after Ireland’s independence recognition in 1922. However, 1960s economic decline and marginalisation of the Catholic minority revived old tensions. Furthermore, civil rights agitation from 1968 brought a violent response from the state and loyalists, culminating in severe rioting in August 1969. 

This spiral into violence caused the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), and the deployment of British troops to the region. On 30 January 1972, 14 civil rights protestors were killed by the British Army in Derry on a day that became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’ It was not until 1994 that paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland, and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement of 1998, put an end in a violence wave which caused 3,500 deaths, of which 52% were civilians.

In 2016, after the UK voted to leave the European Union, new concerns arose as a non-deal Brexit would result in  a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. This meant limited and physically controlled crossing points. In order to avoid this outcome, in 2018, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May, proposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, also known as the Irish backsto). The protocol would keep the United Kingdom in the European Union Customs Union and Northern Ireland partially linked to the European Single Market, until a better solution was found. The Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposed this provision, as it believes that it undermines the integrity of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not surprisingly, the backstop was rejected three times by the Parliament and the inability of Mrs. May to conduct Brexit led to her resignation. 

This week, the European Union approved a new draft proposed by the British PM, Boris. Johnson. The main difference with previous proposals is that instead of having customs checks at the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there would be checks in the UK itself, at ports along the Irish Sea and airports. In other words, products shipped to Northern Ireland, which are suspected to be furthered to Ireland would be taxed (VAT figures as the main consumption tax). In the case they are not effectively furthered, merchants would be indemnified. The next step to formalise this deal is the approval of the British Parliament. Nevertheless, DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy Nigel Dodds put out a joint statement laying out their concerns with the deal terms, “As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues and there is a lack of clarity on VAT.” Moreover, DUP said: “These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union.”

What happens if the Parliament rejects the deal? According to the Ben Act, Mr. Johnson, who currently holds the minority in the Parliament, would have to request a three-month Brexit delay, unless he can get MPs to approve a no-deal exit by 19th October. While the EU Council President, Donald Tusk, does not rule out an extension, EU Commission President, Mr. Juncker, is more resistant. The British PM repeatedly stated that the UK must and will leave the European Union by the 31st of October, and appealed, “Now is the moment for us to get Brexit done and then together work on building our future partnership, which I think can be incredibly positive both for the UK and for the EU.” 

Twenty years after the entry into force of the Good Friday Agreement, another deal could define the future of Belfast and its relations with London. Now, it is up to the British Parliament and EU leaders not only to issue a careful decision, but to promote a peaceful and smooth transition to the more than 1.8 million Northern-Irish people who do not want a hard border on their island.

Photo by Frederick Tubiermont on Unsplash

Resources

1966 and all that: the 50th anniversary commemorations. (2013, April 17). Retrieved from https://www.historyireland.com/20th-century-contemporary-history/1966-and-all-that-the-50th-anniversary-commemorations/.

Brexit deal: What does it mean? (2019, October 17). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-50084090.

Brexit: EU and UK reach deal but DUP refuses support. (2019, October 17). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-50079385.

Campbell, J. (2019, January 23). No-deal Brexit ‘means hard border’ – European Commission. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-46961982.

Daly, P. (2019, October 17). Brexit: DUP’s concerns with Boris Johnson’s deal – customs, consent and VAT. Retrieved from https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/brexit-dups-concerns-with-boris-johnsons-deal-customs-consent-and-vat-38604045.html.

History of The Northern Ireland Conflict. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.history.co.uk/history-of-the-northern-ireland-conflict.

Weaver, M. (2019, October 17). DUP says it cannot support Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/17/dup-boris-johnson-brexit-deal.