Lessons from the Brexit debacle for our Executive debacle

On 10th April next year, familiar political figures and dignitaries (some with slightly less unscathed reputations than others) will gather in Belfast to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Northern Ireland is already in the middle of a veritable feast of commemorations, all of which illustrate the entanglement of its history with major events across these islands and beyond: the 700th anniversary of Edward the Bruce’s campaign, the centenaries of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. In all cases, public commemoration has had to acknowledge the fact that its experience of intertwined British/Irish/European ‘history’ is very much a matter for contemporary contention here.

The commemoration of the Agreement will be likewise, no doubt, renewed stoking of the debate as to its intrinsic good or otherwise. However, it will also have a unique quality in that the Agreement itself is very much an on-going process rather than a one-off historical event.

Indeed, the continuing fragility of the Agreement means that we should face the possibility that its twentieth anniversary could be held in memorium. As Milena Komarova has noted, the very fact that (in its latest Brexit position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland) the UK Government has had to express its ongoing support for the Agreement could rather worryingly imply that this could ever have been in doubt.

Instead, the twentieth anniversary should mark a new stage in the Agreement – one that adapts it for stability during the earthquake in its landscape that is currently under way. The earthquake contains several minor tremors – as seen in the current state of DUP/Sinn Féin relations – but the core source of the upheaval comes from Brexit.

Constructive ambiguity in the EU and the GFA

European integration and the Agreement have shared certain qualities, not least in that the processes relied on not having an absolutely certain future end-point, but rather on a measure of common agreement as to currently shared needs. To be more precise, the success of both the Agreement and the EU have depended on the fact that different parties to them could read their own preferred outcome into the process in hand.

Few UK governments ever felt comfortable with this uncertainty – always preferring to read-in to the process some of the more extreme ambitions of European federalism. (Perhaps the lack of a written UK constitution has exacerbated this wariness).

In a similar way, hardline unionists have continued to read the Agreement as an intractable process towards Irish unification. In so doing, both unionists and British politicians have failed to realise and to grasp the power and influence that they wield in (though not over) the process right now, at this moment.

What is extraordinary about the UK’s position in the EU was that it always downplayed its hand and over-emphasised the power and unity of ‘the other’. Exactly same could be said of the DUP with regards to the Agreement and power-sharing.

The risks of rhetoric

The hubris of Cameron pushed the UK government into Brexit – unprepared, ill-informed, ideologically-charged, and wilfully reckless. It was perhaps right to hold a referendum, but it was wrong to have made the debate so purely one of polarised ideological positions. Only in the wake of the results are the hideously real implications of Brexit becoming clear and entering the discourse. The efforts of the UK government to keep it at the level of floppy rhetoric and (as Juncker terms it) ‘magical thinking’ reflect the belief that this is the best way to keep their constituency on-side. The end-point of this tactic is, however, rather close and quite indisputably harmful.

Are there lessons that the DUP should take from this crisis? Be careful lest the rhetoric you use to shore up support from your constituency by playing-up the power of your opponents actually takes on a momentum of its own. Even if you can’t contemplate the shared interests of the country, make a straightforward, realistic calculation of what is in the best interests of your constituency (not merely of short-term profile of your party). What is the point of holding onto a great poker hand when the game has morphed into Russian roulette?

The Brexit debacle has shown us: rhetoric is more than mere words, ideology does not produce answers to real problems, politics is more than a game.

Why the Agreement matters now

It is quite apt that the Agreement has a high profile in this current stage of Brexit negotiations. Again, it is a process sold on the basis of constructive ambiguity but which has the most incredibly real and sharp effects. It is those effects that politicians of all sides should concentrate on now: effects on peace, power-sharing, governance, rights, representation, prosperity.

It would be wrong to let the Agreement be treated merely as a twenty-year old peace accord between parties – it forms the basis of an international treaty with direct institutional, structural, governmental and policy consequences.

If it collapses – which well it might – there is nothing to replace it with that offers the equivalent protections for the people of Northern Ireland in the diversity of traditions and identities.

The fact that the Agreement is also a ‘live’ process means that it contains the potential for enhancement and adaptation in the changing post-Brexit environment. The UK government has recognised this in its stated desire to protect the single island energy market. There are a dozen other realms in which all-island and British-Irish cooperation can be enhanced to meet shared challenges in this uncertain world.

It is best to build upon the foundation stone we have – no matter how flawed – and to adapt it for our current needs, rather than cast it aside in a fit of party political pique. I am sure David Cameron would agree.

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