Twenty odd years ago, a former colleague of mine was about to get married. She was from Northern Ireland and, while in London, she had met an Englishman called Anthony. She described, with amusement, the polite questions from her relatives. Without asking directly, they were trying to find out whether he was a catholic. Anthony, she told me, was a name far more common among catholics than protestants in Northern Ireland. Another friend, this one a catholic called Rory, told me of an occasion when he had been out with a mixed group of friends in Belfast at an event where he knew most of the audience would be protestants. He asked his friends to call him Roy, not Rory, as his name would immediately tell others where he was from. It worked for most of the evening until one of them forgot and shouted ‘Rory’ across the room. Fortunately it was just before last orders so they made their excuses and left.
A few years later, during a late-night conversation at a conference, we somehow got onto the subject of passports. Of the two people in our team who were from Northern Ireland, one had an Irish passport and the other didn’t. As I remarked to one of my colleagues, it was obvious which one. The one with the Gaelic-sounding name had the Irish passport, the one named after a town in Scotland didn’t. For me, the surprising thing about this was how much of it came as news to some of my other English colleagues. It’s one of the many things that people this side of the water fail to grasp about Northern Ireland. You only need one piece of information about someone to be able to infer a whole lot of other stuff. As our boss, whose family are Irish, remarked, you don’t even need to know where someone went to school. Just the name of the school will do.
At the root of all this are questions of history and national identity. Those from protestant backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as British and those from catholic backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as Irish. Matthew O’Toole summed it up neatly:
We might wish for a world in which more of Northern Ireland’s people shared a collective identity, but that is not is the world we live in. Nations are imagined communities, to use an old truism. The people of Northern Ireland have, over time, constructed separate psychological spaces for their identities. And part of the reason for enduring political instability is that neither monolithic identity can win. Both are inherently insecure.
People who feel Irish live in the island of Ireland, but not the state called Ireland. People who feel British live in the British state, but not on the island of Great Britain.
And, as he said, the Good Friday Agreement created a situation in which both were able to pretend. Northern Ireland remained legally part of the United Kingdom but the lack of a visible border meant that nationalists could imagine they lived in the same country as the people in the Republic.
The Good Friday agreement was elaborately engineered to reflect this. It not only instituted power-sharing, but created a legally enforceable right to identify as British, Irish or both. The agreement is fastidious in keeping Northern Ireland within the UK until a majority votes otherwise. But it is expansive when describing the right of people there to be part of the “Irish nation”. To make people who feel Irish relaxed about Ireland being partitioned as a matter of legal fact, the agreement sought to soften the border in people’s minds: to help them imagine it wasn’t there.
This softening of the border was enabled by the European Union and its single market. Once the single market had been implemented, there was no need for customs checks. With no customs checks, no security concerns and no immigration controls, people could cross the border as they pleased.
Some people were highly critical of the Good Friday Agreement at the time. Michael Gove wrote a blistering attack on it in 2000. He concluded:
Ulster’s future lies, ultimately, either as a Province of the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. Attempts to fudge or finesse that truth only create an ambiguity which those who profit by violence will seek to exploit.
He was absolutely right that the agreement was a fudge but, as Matthew O’Toole says, the fudge was the whole point. The ambiguity it created allowed people with different national identities to pretend they were living in the country they wanted to be in. Far from inflaming the violence, the peace process actually allowed most of the men of violence to back down with face-saving good grace. Here, the statistics speak for themselves.
From 1993, the peace process saw a gradual reduction in terrorist incidents and its culmination, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, almost brought terrorism in Northern Ireland to an end. Michael Gove was wrong. The agreement’s ambiguity didn’t open up opportunities for violence, it closed them down.
Businesses needed no encouragement to imagine the border away. Over the next 15 years, the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic became ever more integrated. The Republic of Ireland now accounts for around a third of Northern Ireland’s exports. According to the FT, no other part of the UK is so dependent on trade with a single country. A lot of this is due to cross-border supply chains.
All of this is now under threat from Brexit. The assumptions on which people have built their lives and their work over the last 20 years are about to be blown away. The UK government’s current position on its future relationship with the EU is incompatible with its assurances on the Irish border. As soon as the UK leaves the customs union there must be border checks. There is no magic technology option that will wish this away.
Now we have pro-Brexit politicians saying that the Good Friday Agreement is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. Politicians and commentators have condemned their remarks. You only have to look at what has happened to the level of violence and the level of cross border trade in Ireland to conclude that, whatever minor problems there might be with the Good Friday Agreement, it’s still better than what went before.
The trouble is, a lot of people on this side of the water don’t really understand why it’s a big issue. Irish commentators are outraged and incredulous at the actions of the British government and the utterances of some of its politicians but the border question gets a lot less air time over here. It was barely discussed during the referendum. What some Irish people see as British aggression is, these days, simply lazy indifference. Since the IRA stopped bombing shopping centres, the English, in particular, have forgotten about Ireland. The results of Channel 4’s vox pop, asking people to draw the Irish border on a map were unsurprising. Most people hadn’t a clue where it was. Nuanced questions of identity and the importance of a constructive ambiguity that allows people to live in two different countries at the same time are likely to be lost on many people.
Unless the UK government has a sudden change of heart, it’s difficult to see how there won’t be a border between the UK and Ireland. The Irish government is already preparing for the introduction of customs checks. What happens if border customs posts go up is anybody’s guess. I have heard it said that the threat of violence has been over-hyped, that the terrorists on both sides are now mostly retired and that the country has moved on from the days of the troubles. That may be so but the border is long and difficult to police. Differing customs rules create opportunities for smuggling and where there is lucrative crime, violence usually follows. Furthermore, there are still armed groups operating and they seem to wield considerable power in some parts of the country. New grievances, like a sudden hit to the economy, might bring new recruits. These groups only need a few resentful young people and they are in business. The terrorism might look completely different too. Not bombs in the Arndale Centre but crippling cyber attacks on vital services.
It is true that Northern Ireland is a different place now. For many, sectarianism has lost its appeal. A return to 1970s levels of violence looks unlikely but any increase in terrorism will wreck lives. Even if there isn’t an upsurge in violence, the reappearance of a border will create misery and resentment which might play out in all sorts of unpredictable ways in years to come.
Perhaps there are aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which haven’t worked. Maybe some things that were agreed during the peace process need to be looked at again. But make no mistake, what Matthew O’Toole calls the “smudged sovereignty” of the agreement has served us well over the past 20 years. Of course it was a fudge. Everybody knows it was a fudge. But it was an inspired fudge. And it worked.