The Good Friday Agreement: an inspired fudge

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.


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44 Responses to The Good Friday Agreement: an inspired fudge

  1. Oh if only the EU knew how to fudge…

    • Dipper says:

      well yes, exactly. It seems strange to write an article in praise of fudge and then say “All of this is now under threat from Brexit”. For clarity, it is under threat because the EU refuses to fudge.

      A friend once said that contracts are not instructions but provide the basis for a relationship. The failure of the EU to understand this, and regard a contract as a series of instructions to the UK not a basis for a negotiated relationship is the root of the problem.

      • Martinned says:

        OK, I’ll bite, please do tell what the fudge would look like.

        • Dipper says:

          the point about the fudge is that allows both parties to sit negotiate compromises.

          An example would be that the UK would have a customs union with the EU but could negotiate specific and limited variations for particular industries or sections of industries subject to agreement with the EU. In return the UK has to have a right to screw up something important in the EU e.g. right to impose customs inspections on imports. If both sides have a stick and both sides have a carrot (for the EU continued massive trade surplus) then there is room for negotiation to an agreement that maximises benefits to both sides.

  2. Dipper says:

    “He asked his friends to call him Roy, not Rory, as his name would immediately tell others where he was from.”

    I was sat next to an Indian colleague at work one Monday asking her about her weekend. she had been to see a Bollywood movie in Leicester Square. At some point there had been an argument between two men and “this stupid woman said ‘come on Javed and sit down'”. When I looked blank she explained that identifying one person in an argument as muslim in a cinema largely full of hindus was not the smartest thing to do. So this stuff happens in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways.

  3. Dipper says:

    And back to GFA. We could really do with the EU not grandstanding here and using the threat of violence as a way of screwing over the UK.

    AfD are within a gnats whisker of being the second largest party in Germany. Marine Le Pen is the main opposition in France. Anti-muslim nationalist parties are on the rise in Eastern Europe. There is only one European nation that has seen a significant decline in support for nationalist parties and that is the post-referendum UK. That could all change.

    Pro EU politicians finding ways to screw up Brexit are playing with fire. Using the GFA as a device to foil the wishes of 17 million people is an affront to democracy and is really not going to go down well. The forces that propelled UKIP will be back and not necessarily expressed through the ballot box.

    • Charlie says:

      The UK goverment could solve the Irish border issue at a stroke by staying in the single market and custom union. But they’re too beholden to Paul Dacre and co. There’s only one side making a total hash of Brexit and the Irish border issue, and it’s not the EU or any pro-EU politicians.

      And the Tories now are pretty much UKIP anyway.

      • Dipper says:

        Staying in the single market and customs union is EU in all but name. The forces that propelled Brexit would return in a more ugly form. The notion that the failure of 6 million people to live together should force the hand of 60 million is a very damaging one in a democracy. Pretending that this is all down to The Daily Mail is one of those patronising conceits that doesn’t survive contact with any form of deeper analysis.

        Major parties are all coalitions, and yes there’s a UKIP element in there but there are a lot who aren’t.

        • bill40 says:

          Dipper, you really are misinformed about if you think that the SM and CU is in the EU in all but name. Norway is in the SM but not the EU. Turkey is not in the EU but has a good customs arrangement. The EFTA/EEA solution for the UK to leave the EU the sane and practical option.

          I disagree somewhat with Rick when he says the GFA is a fudge it isn’t (well yes it is) but iot’s fudge made out of goodwill. The nation is basically split 50:50 and it will take more than a finger of fudge to heal that. The Brexit Ultras are a tiny minority and far too noisey. Pipe down.

          • Dipper says:

            I’m not misinformed. Norway has been clear that their arrangement is far from ideal. One Norwegian professor says “the so-called Norway option of EEA membership would amount to self-inflicted subservience to the EU.” (

            All the evidence is that the EU Referendum was decided largely on constitutional grounds. People who believe the UK should govern itself are in a majority, not a tiny minority.

          • Dipper says:

            just to bang on about this, worrying about governance and democracy isn’t a hobby of constitutional obsessives, it is down to a deeply held belief that if you lose your influence on power, however small your individual hold may be, you will, ultimately, get completely screwed. This concern appears to be shared by at least half the nation.

            The way the ruling clique in the EU are looking to rule by dictat is very bad for the UK. In the long term there is no future for us in this arrangement.

            The one close-to-home example of that is Ireland where inability to control the basic governance of the island was a disaster for the population.

    • Mick McNeill says:

      “It is frankly astonishing that anyone with a modicumof common sense would advocate jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate their half-baked ideology around Brexit. These Quitlings have very short or convenient memories” DAVENANT.

  4. Contrary to their protestations, the DUP want both a hard border and the dissolution of the Good Friday Agreement. This is because they ultimately see the Republic of Ireland as a foreign country with no greater rights or influence than any other state beyond the UK. This is not just a visceral prejudice on their part but a conscious adoption of the sovereigntist thinking of Enoch Powell that would in turn inform Tory euroscepticism in the 1980s.

    Where the DUP used to depart from Powell was on their insistence on devolved power, however changing demographics and political attitudes mean that they can see the end of Protestant hegemony, hence their current insistence on direct rule. Just as they wish to blame Sinn Fein for that, so they wish to blame the EU for the return of a hard border. Once those two outcomes transpire, they will argue that the GFA has no meaningful purpose beyond the right of NI citizens to a RoI passport, something they can live with as it will entail no obligations for a UK outside the EU.

    The DUP are the anti-fudge party, which means not just the erosion of the GFA but no concession in the Brexit negotiations that would lead to any special status for Northern Ireland, retain any ECJ oversight, or entail any obligations to the Republic of Ireland. The irony is that this has all arisen from the “fudge” of the 2017 general election result.

  5. Pingback: The Good Friday Agreement: an inspired fudge | Flip Chart Fairy Tales | sdbast

  6. John says:

    There is another possibility.
    Could not citizens of the UK and Ireland be joined in a Union of the British Isles?
    That was the situation prior to 1922 – why not again?
    That could still permit a choice of passports and a treaty with the EU.
    It is another fudge until such time as the demographic changes in Northern Ireland result in a majority choosing to become citizens of a United Ireland.
    Is that not what all history of the Island of Ireland has been about for virtually the last century?

  7. Danny says:

    The FT article you link to describes Irish preparations for Customs checks at the port of Dublin. I.e. not on the northern Irish land border. Could we conceive of a mutual arrangement (customs fudge if you like) across Belfast and Dublin (&other ports) to shift the effective border to the Irish sea? Obviously not what DUP would want but given the practical border of the Irish sea perhaps a compromise that majority would take?

    • Martinned says:

      As events in December showed – when Mrs. May pretty much put this option on the table, only to be instructed to take it back by Arlene Foster – this option is a no-go as long as the UK government is propped up by the DUP.

  8. P Hearn says:

    Per, 15% of NI’s exports go to the Republic, not 30% as per the article above.
    (59% go to the rest of the UK, 8% to the rest of the EU, 16% RoW.)

    The UK and Ireland had a common travel area (free movement) long before the EU came about. The EU was not then, and is not now, a necessary entity to facilitate this. Ireland, were it not in the EU, could happily negotiate an FTA with the UK in an afternoon. If Dublin thinks Germany gives a flying fig about their interests, they are in for a terrible shock. Germany cares about Germany, and France about France. Dublin is a small, damp town on the edge of civilisation as far as the EU is concerned.

    In the end, if the EU wants a border, the EU will get a border. The UK just needs to be sure the EU pays for it, staffs it, and cops the flack.

  9. P Hearn says:

    You pays yer money. Depends if you count “exports” to the rest of the UK in the total, as Fullfact has done.

    In the overall picture of NI’s £72bn economy, £4bn to the south is just 5.5% of the total. Certainly significant, but leaves the other 94.5% to worry about which does put the issue in perspective. If those exports are fungible, the border is political, not economic.

    Dublin is certainly at risk of being utterly screwed here. I hope their good friends in Brussels come through for them. Personally, I wouldn’t be counting on it and would be in direct discussions with the UK, but it’s Varadkar’s call.

    • Almar says:

      The disgreement here is purely one of definition.

      The 15% of NI’s exports going to Ireland (from fullfacts) is 15% of all of NI’s sales to anywhere outside of NI itself.
      The “about a third” (from nisra) of NI’s exports is £3.4 billion out of £10.1 billion; where the 10.1 as well as the 3.4 are defined as “Exports (sales outside the UK)”.

      So the difference is merely whether the denominator is NI’s sales outside NI itself or outside the UK. In the context of the article, the former seems more relelevant. This may be debatable, but it is a shame that, given the ambiguity of “exports”, the distinction was not made explicit.

      • P Hearn says:


        We’re talking about 5% of NI’s economy. Important, but not the 33% the headline might have implied at first glance. Would that trade stop completely, even with a Berlin Wall round Ulster? One suspects not, and we’re talking about a paltry amount of trade in the scheme of things. Not quite a fortnight’s budget for the NHS, or four times a DUP bung.

        I think the thrust of the piece is we can’t leave the EU because it doesn’t suit Ireland. It’s a view.

  10. Mick McNeill says:

    It is no coincidence that the QUITTERS like Dipper are always looking to blame, find a scapegoat, and excusing their ignorant selves from anything approaching what decent principled folk call RESPONSIBILITY FOR THIS MESS!

  11. Almar says:

    With respect to the disagreement between Dipper and Bill40 above: it’s time for Rick to include the diagram in the 6th July 2017 blog again (the one taken from the Institute of Government).

    Looking at that, it seems that being both in the Single Market and in the Customs Union would only clearly allow exit from the CAP and the CFA. In every other way, the results would be almost the same as remaining in the EU, but without having a say in the way the rules are set or in any negotiations with non-EU states.

  12. Guano says:

    Negotiation of the GFA took a great deal of time and effort. It required the presence of outside mediators – including the EU and the US administration. Perhaps we should have outside mediators for the negotiations between the UK and the EU, and perhaps we should rescind the Article 50 declaration so that the timetable for these negotiations is open-ended. That might work, and produce a compromise.

    But we don’t have mediators and we have limited time. Nor does the UK have many cards in its hand (despite what the Brexit Ultras said before the referendum). The integrity of the Single Market is more important to the other members of the EU (and to German car-makers) than trade with the UK. The other members of the EU find it unreasonable that the UK (which played a leading role in creating the Single Market and its regulations) now object to those regulations and want to rewrite the rules of the Single Market. The other members of the EU find it unreasonable that the UK (which played a leading role in bringing in the latest recruits to the EU) now object to free movement and to the cost of the EU, given that the newest members of the EU are strongly in favour of free movement and the improvement of their infrastructure and institutions is a cost to the EU budget. So it is unlikely (despite what the Brexit Ultras say) that threatening to walk away from negotiations will produce concessions from the EU.

    The agreement on Phase One of negotiations was a fudge – and the UK Government immediately started to back away from it or pretend it doesn’t exist (as with Johnson’s speech that didn’t mention Ireland). Reaching a compromise requires finding real solutions to conflicting objectives, nit just pretending that these contradictions don’t exist.

    • Dipper says:


      “Perhaps we should have outside mediators for the negotiations between the UK and the EU, and perhaps we should rescind the Article 50 declaration” Outside mediators would have been a good idea. I think a lot of what the EU is doing is quite disgraceful – an outright assault on nationhood and all the citizen’s rights and representation that comes with it – so mediation would have been a good idea. The current arrangement feels a bit like a battered spouse engaging in direct divorce talks with their abusive partner.
      Rescind article 50 – No. Like most Leavers, I just think this means we never leave.

      “The other members of the EU find it unreasonable that the UK … now object to free movement”. Well its when others disagree with your views and actions you find your worth as an individual or as a nation. Allies respect the rights of fellow nations to have differing opinions and follow different paths. To insist that a nation follow the direction of others or else face sanction is, to my previous point, quite unacceptable.

      “it is unlikely (despite what the Brexit Ultras say) that threatening to walk away from negotiations will produce concessions from the EU.” If this is true, then it is also true that agreeing to whatever the EU dictates will also not produce concessions either now or at any further date in the future. Where does that leave the UK apart from powerless to influence its destiny? To use a standard Leave quote, I voted to Leave the EU because I wanted to Leave the EU.

      “as with Johnson’s speech that didn’t mention Ireland”. Johnson seems to have got quite a lot of stick because his speech was short on detail, but he couldn’t do anything other than talk in very general tones. If he had given any views on Ireland then he would either have been disagreeing with the PM or acting as a self-appointed spokes-person for the Prime Minister, neither of which is a good look.

      Overall the way the Brexit debate in the UK has turned into a family argument has meant no-one is looking hard at what the EU is up to. There is a hard-line mentality now running through EU thought that all deviation must be suppressed, all resistance crushed, and the Federalist centre must impost its views ruthlessly at all costs. We know from our own experience of empire that this may work in the short term but in the long term it will not. You cannot oppress people for long before resistance breaks against you. Frustration is boiling up all over Europe. This centralisation project will not succeed. If not the UK, then someone else will blow it apart.

      • Guano says:

        “Johnson ….. couldn’t do anything other than talk in very general tones.”

        Then maybe he shouldn’t have made his speech. The time for talking in general terms ended a long time ago.

  13. Keith says:

    Brexit is a form of lunacy with multiple disasters waiting to happen thanks to far right cranks like dipper. Who will may well have blood on their hands as you explain. Ignoring the obvious reaction of the rest of the eu to brexit is par for the course. Unrealistic magic thinking does not solve problems. Politics is the art of the possible as more reasonable conservatives of an older generation understood. It shows how extreme and unrepresentative the tory party has become. A party not fit for office.

  14. Dipper says:

    I I ever had doubts about voting to Leave (and I don’t) this kind of “blood on their hands” rubbish just convinces me I did the right thing.

    • Mick McNeill says:

      … if you ever had doubts, come on … you can do better than that, LOL! I can’t think that you are an utter “plank”, therefore .. that comment must be by design!

    • Guano says:

      The Good Friday Agreement in an international commitment by the UK government.

      Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary.

      Boris Johnson appears to have difficulty in re-affirming his commitment to that Agreement (and to a commitment made by the Government of which he is a member less than three months ago).

      We should all be deeply concerned about that, because of the risks to peace in Ireland and the damage to the UK’s reputation.

      • Dipper says:

        Wikipedia GFA – “For the first time, the government of the Republic of Ireland accepted in a binding international agreement that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom”

        So who is it exactly tearing up the GFA? Varadkar’s support fro the annexation of NI by the EU unless we accept the offered terms is completely against the spirit of the GFA

        The UK government believes we can avoid a hard border (note a border already exists in VAT and duties) and leave the custom’s union. Calling the UK government liars, as the EU seems to be doing, is not a good move.

        Varadkar should be wary, given the history of how and why William of Orange came to Ireland, of acting on behalf of foreign powers wishing to assert their rule over the UK.

  15. Guano says:

    “The UK government believes we can avoid a hard border (note a border already exists in VAT and duties) and leave the custom’s union.”

    The EU27 proposed a negotiating timetable in April 2016. The UK Government agreed to this negotiating timetable in June 2016. The deadline to conclude the first stage was December 2016. The UK Government spent most of the six months between June and September 2016 complaining about a negotiating timetable that it had agreed to.

    In the last week before the deadline for the first stage, the UK Government made a commitment for regulatory alignment between NI and Ireland and then, in response to criticisms from the DUP and others, to regulatory alignment between NI and England/Scotland/Wales. Three months later the EU is trying to make that a written, legal commitment. Meanwhile the UK government has gone backwards and no longer mentions the commitments it made in December 2016 about regulatory alignment (because this upsets Brexit Ultras who want us all to be poorer so that the UK can do its own trade deals for which it is utterly unprepared).

    So, at this stage, it is of no interest what the UK Government believes. The question is “How?”. And if no answer has appeared in the last nine months, it seems unlikely that an answer is going to appear in the next three months. Boris Johnson’s answers to Thornberry in the HoC are of no interest because the time has long gone for assurances about it being possible to avoid a hard border and leave the customs’ union.

    • Dipper says:

      Just assume, for the moment, that if your Remainer brain is going “if we do/say X, then Y will happen” that in fact the opposite of Y will happen. If you do that, things will become a lot easier to understand and a solution may become apparent.

      • Guano says:

        If this were true, the relevant Ministers (eg Johnson) would be able to make a statement to that effect in the HoC (rather than a statement of his beliefs) and would have been able to make firm, written proposals to the EU negotiators in the last three months. If this were true, Theresa May would not have made concessions on 8th December 2017 (eg paragraphs 49 and 50 of the agreement of that date, which she seems to have backed away from). If this were true, the UK government would have made proposals soon after agreeing to the negotiations timetable in June last year.

        The UK Government has not, as yet, said anything that isn’t a breezy assertion that things will be OK or that it is all the fault of the Irish Government or the EU. My concern now is that the UK Government isn’t really doing Brexit, except to point fingers at other parties. It isn’t producing proposals or saying what the options are. It isn’t able to face up to the conflicting promises and red lines.

        Theresa May said, a long time ago, that she wasn’t going to give a running commentary on negotiations. Despite that, we have been inundated by speeches and comments, which go round in circles: she has tied herself in knots.

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