As Mitchell had hoped, Unionists and Republicans do settle their differences through political means. And while the country’s assembly has been suspended on more than one occasion due to political deadlock, the DUP and Sinn Féin have still governed in coalition for more than a decade. The achievement this represents is truly historic, and has saved lives.
Yet the underlying sectarianism was, if anything, Hayward said, reinforced by the agreement. “The political status of Northern Ireland could change in the future, and that’s really very reassuring to Nationalists,” she said. “For Unionists, there’s a sense of a need to continually shore up that Unionist identity and not let go of that majority because of fear that if you have a move to a Nationalist identity, then you have a united Ireland. … This is why they’ve had a growing move toward voting for hardline parties, that’s why the DUP and Sinn Féin came into power—because there’s that uncertainty, there’s that sense of Northern Ireland being in limbo in a political sense.”
Brexit is now creating its own kind of limbo. Unionists are reluctant to get some kind of “special arrangement” for Northern Ireland that symbolically separates it from the rest of the U.K. in an effort to maintain close relations to the Republic of Ireland—such as, for example, keeping a customs union with the EU after the rest of the U.K. has already left it. For Republicans, the border causes similar fears of separation—albeit from the Republic of Ireland. “Having a soft border was crucial because that meant the issue of identity was really removed from the table,” Jonathan Powell, the U.K.’s chief negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement, told me. “You could live in Northern Ireland all your life and be Irish (have an Irish passport, never notice there was a border), or you could be British, or you could be both. If you have a hard border and we go back to the concrete blocks on small roads and the border point crossings and all that, then the identity issue is reopened.”
Which doesn’t mean a return to violence. “We’re not going to go back to The Troubles again,” Powell said. But he’s worried that Northern Ireland’s current leaders are less capable of compromise than their predecessors. “The cost of making compromise is no longer so life and death as it was for [Ian] Paisley and [Martin] McGuinness,” he said of the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders—affectionately known as the “Chuckle Brothers” for their amiable, albeit unlikely, friendship—who ushered in the parties’ first power-sharing arrangement in 2007. “I’m worried whether the new generation is up to this challenge, whether they can make it work.”
The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland will need to compromise, too. Though the British and Irish governments have historically held a unified stance on Northern Ireland, Brexit has put the two parties at opposite ends of the negotiating table, and Hayward said it’s starting to show. “At the moment, neither Unionists or Nationalists are preparing their constituencies for a compromise—the same thing on the British and Irish side as well,” she said, adding: “That would be my biggest worry on the impact of Brexit. We’re not prepared for it in any sense whatsoever.”