The famous statement by Peter Brooke that Britain has ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland found its political and legal home in the Good Friday Agreement’s reference to ‘rigorous impartiality’. The idea is that constitutional status rests only on democratic consent, and on decisions taken on the island of Ireland alone (on sovereignty). However unlikely it may appear, the role of the British Government is thus to be ‘impartial’ within the space created by the Agreement; with both governments operating as co-guarantors of a delicate experiment in power-sharing and transnational governance.
The impact of Brexit on the Agreement is much discussed, and disputed. But there are structural and wider consequences that merit attention. Brexit makes Northern Ireland of strategic and economic interest to Ireland, Britain and the EU. The divide on the island will become an external border of the EU, and enhanced divergence creates destabilising fractures. For Ireland, there is a risk that Northern Ireland evolves into a regulatory/economic outlier, with all the problems that this will cause for its own standing in the EU (given the common desire for invisibility of the border and the stress on the integrity of the single market). For Britain, it becomes (among other things) a doorway into the UK, and at present it is a pawn in the Government’s negotiating tactics over the future relationship with the EU. What is missing from the debate is this sense of an assault not only on the Agreement but on a central pillar of the entire peace process. Brexit makes Northern Ireland strategically significant now and in the future in ways that erode further the notion of ‘rigorous impartiality’. Any British Government, and any Irish Government, will have a continuing strategic and economic interest in what happens at the border between its territory and the EU/a third country. That is why it is essential to stabilise Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, and why the case for a special arrangement is so compelling.
The British Government has been reckless in its careless management of the peace process, but its heightened rhetoric around the EU-UK negotiations is unforgivably irresponsible. It is edging closer and closer to the abandonment of the principles and values that informed and underpinned the peace process (well before the 1998 Agreement); this is a retreat to the language of the 1980s. Recall that the fragile process is a legacy of many parties and governments; not something to be lightly cast aside by a minority government desperate for votes in the House of Commons. It is telling that the EU has shown more genuine concern about the fate of Northern Ireland than the Westminster Government.
Many in Northern Ireland are pointing this out and are finding their voice; most seem to prefer an alternative to the suffocating vision of constitutional and economic integrity presented by the British Government. Brexit is unwanted by the majority of people; a reversal remains the wisest course. But absent a change of mind, Northern Ireland needs special arrangements to reflect its unique circumstances. This is about conserving and not destroying; ultimately, it is about sustaining peace. Brexit is not only incompatible with the Agreement, it targets a core principle of the peace process. Once the UK leaves the EU, the border on the island of Ireland takes on a sharpened strategic form; it will bring structural interests back into play between these islands and within the EU. Managing this will require constitutional creativity and imagination; one long-term and direct side-effect will be to establish an even stronger dynamic towards Irish unity. A logical way for Ireland to avoid the costly regulatory and other forms of economic divergence on the island is to absorb Northern Ireland back into the EU (through the mechanisms envisaged in the Agreement and endorsed by the EU). That may also, of course, become increasingly attractive to a majority in the North of the island, as the realities of post-Brexit Britain materialise. Those who argue that Brexit undermines the peace process are right, and on a more fundamental basis than many realise. For those who believe in the enduring value of the Good Friday Agreement it is plain that a special arrangement is a selfish and strategic imperative.