Brexit and Britain’s Northern Ireland Déjà Vu

The compromises made to reach the Good Friday Agreement offer hope Britain will solve its Brexit riddle. Yet a failed effort a quarter century prior is a cautionary tale.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, stand behind lecterns to address the press.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, address the press. (Phil Noble / Reuters)

An ostensibly intractable problem in Northern Ireland. Historic grievances bubbling to the surface. Peace on the line. Leaps of faith required. Trust in short supply.

With Britain and Ireland now at loggerheads over the terms of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, with Brexit causing seemingly unending chaos in the British Parliament, and with the main political actors insisting they will brook no compromise, it’s worth remembering: We’ve been here before.

In the final months and weeks before the finalizing, in April 1998, of the Good Friday Agreement—a political settlement that effectively ended the three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles—key compromises had yet to be made. Political passions were running high; American intermediaries were shuttling between rooms, passing notes to opposing factions that refused to sit together; and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was ready to resume its war against Britain should everything collapse.

Twenty-one years on, some of those involved then and now—current and former officials, politicians, and diplomats—insist that the success of 1998 proves that a Brexit deal mutually acceptable to London and Dublin can still be salvaged from the growing wreckage of Britain’s exit from the EU. If unsolvable problems once became solvable in the right conditions, why can’t they again?

This was the backdrop to Boris Johnson’s visit to Dublin yesterday, during which the British prime minister held talks with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, in the hope of finding a way through the Brexit impasse that has crippled his government and threatens to see Britain leave the EU without a formal exit agreement as early as October 31.

At present, people and goods cross between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a separate sovereign state and committed member of the EU, without any checks or controls. Yet a crash-out exit, either next month or later if Britain’s departure is delayed again (as demanded by the British Parliament), would see the gradual reimposition of border controls. That, many officials across Europe fear, poses a risk to the 1998 peace settlement, because it will be opposed by Irish nationalists—those who support Northern Ireland eventually being merged into the Republic of Ireland. They view the reimposition of any checks as contrary to the implicit compromise woven into the Good Friday accord: that they can be Irish while living inside the U.K.; that the twin identities in Northern Ireland can coexist, and they are not forced to choose one or the other.

At the same time, were Britain to agree to exit terms demanded by Dublin (and, by extension, the rest of the EU), there are increasing worries that unionists—who support Northern Ireland remaining part of the U.K.—could revolt, angry that such a deal would erode Northern Ireland’s links to Britain.

Speaking alongside Johnson in Dublin yesterday, Varadkar sought to cast minds back to 1998 as an example of how differences can be overcome, even if they once seemed insurmountable. “The Good Friday Agreement is proof that old foes can come together to deal with the most intractable of problems,” he said. In response, Johnson also sought to draw lessons from the Good Friday Agreement: “Today we both recognize that our peoples are the beneficiaries of the efforts of our predecessors—politicians and others—who put aside differences, who found compromises, who took our countries forwards together in circumstances far tougher than now.”

Yet, while optimistic parallels can be drawn with 1998, it is the differences between then and now that stand out, rather than the similarities. A better comparison, officials I spoke with said, may instead be a deal that briefly held a quarter century before the Good Friday Agreement—only to fall apart in acrimony, sparking bitter, bloody, and long-lasting recriminations.

In less than 100 years, Northern Ireland has been made, unmade, and patched together again. Its history is key to understanding today’s impasse, which now threatens to entangle the rest of Europe as Britain flirts with leaving without a formal separation agreement, severing all ties with its biggest trading partner overnight in a move unparalleled in recent Western history.

A pigeon flies past a mural supporting the Irish Republican Army in Belfast.
A pigeon flies past a mural supporting the Irish Republican Army in Belfast. (Cathal McNaughton / Reuters)

The first thing to understand is that the Northern Ireland of today is not the same entity that existed for its first 50 years. That earlier Northern Ireland had its own House of Commons and prime minister, beginning life as a semi-independent state controlled by its unionist majority, inside the United Kingdom but self-governing—tied to Britain, but different.

That Northern Ireland, formed in the bloody upheaval of Irish independence in the 1920s, collapsed amid growing sectarian divisions in 1972 and lay in pieces for decades. From 1972 to 1998, Northern Ireland was governed by “direct rule” from London, its original institutions abolished—never to be brought back. Britain had intervened to stop a civil war (at first, British troops were welcomed as protectors in areas that grew to detest them), only to find itself bogged down in a 30-year battle against the IRA, which sought to reunify Ireland through violence.

The Northern Ireland of today is different. The towns, people, prejudices, and history might be the same, but it has been remade. The modern Northern Ireland was born in 1998 in the peace agreement reached on Good Friday, and is unlike anywhere else in Western Europe. Power is shared, decisions being made by elected representatives of the two communities—the largely Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists—serving in government together. It’s democracy, but not as we know it.

In 1972, when direct rule was first imposed, few expected it would last long. The following year, a new constitutional settlement was agreed on by the leaders of the moderate unionist and nationalist parties based on a form of power sharing. Yet this new settlement—known as the Sunningdale Agreement—collapsed a year later amid ferocious opposition from hard-line unionists, including the future Nobel Prize winner and unionist leader in the 1998 peace negotiations, David Trimble. It would be another 24 years before a new political settlement came into force.

Despite the bloody interlude, the basis of the Good Friday Agreement is contained in Sunningdale: power sharing, all-Ireland institutions, and the formal end of the Republic of Ireland’s claim to the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. For this reason, some have dubbed the Good Friday Agreement (or the Belfast Agreement, for unionists) “Sunningdale for slow learners.” The basis for an agreement was obvious for decades, and yet a deal could not be reached, because the political conditions did not allow it. The IRA wanted to blow Britain out of Ireland in a hail of bullets. Unionism was in no place to compromise.

Some of those involved in the negotiations leading up to the 1998 deal are experiencing a distressing sense of déjà vu. I spoke with seven current and former officials and politicians in Dublin, Belfast, and London who have spent their lives working on Northern Irish peace, from the Good Friday Agreement to the Brexit negotiations now under way. Most of them requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the current deliberations. Among them all, though, there was a widespread view that, like Sunningdale, the bones of a future settlement between Britain and Ireland—and so between Britain and the EU—are visible, inevitably involving compromise from all sides. The problem, they fear, is that the politics might be more 1972 than 1998.

At its heart, Brexit is about whose law applies in whose territory. Where different jurisdictions jut up against one another, there is a border. In Northern Ireland, this is a problem unlike anywhere else in western Europe, given that a sizable minority of its population—Irish nationalists—aspire to remove the border that already exists.

Jonathan Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff during the Good Friday Agreement, said the difference between then and now is that the conundrum today, shaped by the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, is zero-sum. In 1998, all sides were able to claim victory because each extracted compromises from the others; in the case of Brexit, supporters of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU specifically want their country to be able to set its own regulations and customs policy, which necessitates a border—somewhere where these differing rules are enforced. And that border, Powell told me, will almost by definition break the delicate harmony created by the Good Friday Agreement.

“You are going to upset this identity balance one way or the other,” he said. “You are either going to make it worse for the unionists, because you are going to put in a border between the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, or you are going to put in a border between north and south. You are absolutely messing up the issue of identity.”

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had sought to address this tension by agreeing to a “backstop” with the EU as part of her negotiated withdrawal deal. The idea is to keep Northern Ireland bound by EU law on certain key areas relating to the movement of physical goods, agriculture, and livestock across the Irish border and, to minimize the differences between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, by keeping the whole of the U.K. in a Europe-wide customs zone.

The backstop, in this view, is simply a mechanism to protect the status quo until something else can be agreed on—an insurance policy until Britain negotiates a new relationship with Europe. Yet while Varadkar has said the backstop can be replaced in the future, he insists that the mechanism has no time limit, and that it only be supplanted by something that achieves the exact same thing: Northern Ireland’s legal alignment on all matters relating to the border. In other words, EU law, at least in part, must apply in Northern Ireland permanently as the price of Brexit. Johnson has said this is unacceptable and antidemocratic, while unionist parties in Northern Ireland have steadfastly refused to countenance the backstop, pointing out that Varadkar’s position is tantamount to saying only another backstop can replace the backstop.

Now, with weeks to go before Britain is due to exit the EU, and despite the political crisis in Westminster, senior officials and politicians believe at least a ray of light is visible. While Dublin’s position—that on industrial goods, farming, and agriculture, Northern Ireland should not have different rules from the Republic, and both should remain under the EU’s jurisdiction—remains unacceptable to unionists in Northern Ireland, there is at least some crossover in their positions. Ministers in London have suggested solutions built around an “all-Ireland” economy and Nigel Dodds, a leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the main political force representing unionists in Northern Ireland, told the BBC last night that his party—historically opposed to such concessions—is open to a variety of similar measures. Can the political will be found to close this narrowed gap?

In a joint statement following their talks in Dublin, Varadkar and Johnson  hinted that some progress had been made. “Common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain,” the statement read. Yet Irish officials have said the “all-Ireland” moves are just the appetizer in a five-course meal: Northern Irish unionists need to move much further. Ireland also insists that this is not a matter to be settled politically in Belfast, London, or Dublin, but at one step removed, in Brussels, between the U.K. and EU.

As Powell argues, however, the core disagreement cannot be overcome by leaps in technology or with technocratic fixes. The disagreement is over whose law should apply in whose territory—this is a more fundamental fissure, more political. It is about principle, not pragmatism.

In 1998, all sides made concessions. The Good Friday Agreement was essentially one grand bargain between unionists and nationalists. All sides paid a price, and got something in return, allowing the core infrastructure of the new Northern Ireland to be built: power sharing. It also saw the Irish government drop its territorial claim to Northern Ireland, which had been written into its constitution. It was a deeply political compromise built, inch by inch, over decades, before finally being pushed over the line with speed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, pose together after they signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (far left), U.S. Senator George Mitchell (center), and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) pose together in 1998 after signing the Good Friday Agreement. (Dan Chung / Pool / AP)

But looking back, all those involved then had political capital to spend, and enormous amounts of work had already been done in building political consensus, with the basis for a deal set out in Sunningdale.

Johnson, deeply distrusted in Dublin, stripped of a majority at home, bound by legislation to delay Brexit, and unable to call elections, has a matter of weeks to tie up a deal without having done any of that groundwork, while being unable to negotiate directly (officially at least) with the one party that has the power to move the dial in Europe: Ireland. The United States, in contrast to 1998, is disengaged and divided—the speaker of the House of Representatives has promised solidarity with Dublin, while the president and vice president have sided with London. Equally, many of the officials I spoke to, both Irish and British, said Dublin was more willing to compromise with unionists in 1998.

According to one ambassador to the EU, the only way a deal can be reached is for Johnson to gamble, beginning with making a credible offer, in public, that the EU is forced to engage with or reject. “He has to stand naked, even for a minute,” the diplomat said, meaning that Johnson has to expose himself politically by making a compromise offer that may cost him support among his Brexiteer base. But does Johnson have the margin of error to do so? In 1998, Tony Blair had a majority of 179. Johnson’s Conservative Party today runs a minority government.

In 1998, Republicans risked the wrath of their base by accepting that Ireland as a whole could not be united until a majority of Northern Ireland supported it. Unionists, meanwhile, risked alienating their base by agreeing to share power before Republican paramilitaries had given up their weapons.

The great danger today is that while it is in everyone’s interest to reach a deal given the economic and social costs of failing, there may come a point when no deal is the least-worst option for all sides politically.

Were Johnson to make a move, Varadkar may nevertheless conclude that the prospect of a deal being reached is now so slim, it does not make any sense for him to risk a concession that would almost certainly cost him politically. In Belfast, the DUP, according to officials who spoke with me, is cautious about making any concession in public, should it be rejected by Dublin.

One Irish official I spoke with who worked on the Good Friday Agreement said the shock of a no-deal might now be required to build momentum for a deal in the future: “Maybe you do need the catharsis,” he said. In Dublin, Varadkar hinted that this view may be gaining traction. “The story of Brexit will not end if the United Kingdom leaves on 31st October,” he told Johnson. “There is no such thing as a clean break … Rather, we just enter a new phase.”

In 1972, Northern Ireland entered a new phase. It lasted 26 years.