Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement; the agreement that united the nationalists, unionists and republicans across The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, who had been split down sectarian lines for generations.
It is arguably one of Tony Blair’s greatest achievement in Government. It even won SDLP’s John Hume and the UUP’s David Trimble a Nobel Peace Prize.
This is because they achieved what was largely considered to be impossible. The signatories pledged a “total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences”, the Irish Government agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the North, they released convicted terrorists and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) decommissioned their weapons.
But most importantly, it had the backing of the people. This historic agreement was supported by 71.1% of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39% of those in the Republic. Of course, it did not lead to the immediate cessation of violence but the emphatic backing of the people meant that there was the ability to take a credible and peaceful step forward, which has now resulted in Northern Ireland’s current system of devolved government.
One of the most symbolic consequences of the Agreement was the removal of the watchtowers at the borders of the Republic and Ireland, which began in December 1999. These had been physical barriers of difference between the divided parties and their removal represented a promise to co-exist in relative harmony.
The Republic’s Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, echoed this sentiment in January when he said that:
The agreement removed barriers and borders – both physically, on the island of Ireland; and emotionally, between communities in Ireland and between our two islands.”
However, the Brexit negotiations have unleashed the disagreement surrounding the border once again. One of the biggest challenges in Theresa May’s quest for a Brexit deal is ensuring a hard border does not emerge between the north and the south of Ireland.
She only got the green-light to move onto the next stage of Brexit talks in December after making a commitment that assured the Irish Government that the Good Friday Agreement was safe.
Yet both she and the Brexit Secretary David Davis have found the round to progress blocked by either the European Union or the Irish republican Sinn Fein.
The motives of Sinn Fein were aptly summarised today by Labour Brexiteer Kate Hoey who said that:
We need to face reality – Sinn Fein don’t particularly want a successful Northern Ireland. They want a united Ireland.”
Today David Davis said that although the final exit deal with the EU was almost 90 per cent there, there were still issues surrounding the Irish Border yet to be fully worked-out.
Although Davis admitted that he had underestimated the extent of issues with the border, he accused Sinn Fein of using their “strong influence to meddle in the negotiations…they’ve been playing a strong political role which they haven’t done historically that I hadn’t foreseen.”
Nevertheless, we should take comfort in the fact that this issue is close to being resolved. Today we must acknowledge that honouring the Good Friday Agreement is crucial; Sinn Fein must cooperate with the Government if peace is to be maintained in a post-Brexit Britain.