Anglo-Irish relations must be reset whoever becomes PM
Brexit has exacerbated tensions more dangerously than at any time since 1998
Boris Johnson, leadership candidate for Britain’s Conservative Party: he and his colleagues must be persuaded to join with Dublin in creating a permanent stable peace between our two islands. Photograph: Henry Nicholls
There is now more than a plausible chance that Boris Johnson will lead the UK out of the EU by October 31st without a deal and with the indispensable support in the British parliament of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Somewhat less likely, but equally ominous, is the prospect of Jeremy Hunt negotiating Brexit with, as he regularly boasts, the DUP as an integral part of his negotiating team in Brussels.
Theresa May gave the DUP an irrevocable veto on Tory government policy on Northern Ireland in her deal of June 27th, 2017. She thus revived the unionist veto so cravenly yielded by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, Merlyn Reese and Roy Mason in their abject surrender to the loyalist strikers of 1974.
The DUP opposed the Belfast Agreement from the beginning and it manifestly opposes its ethos today
They cratered the Sunningdale power-sharing government for Northern Ireland of 1973, the first best hope since partition for peace, justice and some semblance of prosperity for that tormented region.
Their dismal failure of leadership entrenched both the alienation of the nationalist community (Why should young Catholics believe in politics and not in violence when the British government supported the loyalists who wielded supremacy over them?) and the intransigence of the unionist community (Why should THEY give an inch when their own hardest-liners had been backed yet again by the British government?)
For the next 10 years, despite the efforts of Dublin governments and despite John Hume’s heroic endeavours in Washington, Brussels and London, day by day, despair and suffering were exacerbated beyond endurance by the Pavlovian security policies of the British government, by the literally uninterrupted murderous violence of the Provisional IRA, by the sectarian slaughter of Catholics by loyalist paramilitaries and by the daily mutual dehumanisation of sectarian hatred.
Obligations and rights
There are aspects of May’s character and record that appeal: her general decency; her persistent honest efforts to negotiate a realistic withdrawal agreement for the UK from the EU which respects the obligations and rights of both sides but which – can we dare to hope? – the boundless hypocrisy of her party might yet claim as a victory for Johnson’s Brexit.
Alas her gross betrayal of the indispensable political basis of the peace process – British government even-handedness between unionists and nationalists – cannot be forgiven. It must be overturned.
Tony Blair, in his visionary endeavours with Bertie Ahern, would never have allowed the one-sided unionist veto to be revived. Margaret Thatcher, the arch unionist of all modern British leaders, painfully negotiated over two years with Garret FitzGerald and finally ended Wilson’s unionist veto of 1974 through the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Both governments must re-emphasise that neither wishes to prejudge how the constitutional uncertainties might eventually play out
Anglo-Irish relations must be reset regardless of who is prime minister, whether Johnson or Hunt or even Corbyn. This does not mean that the cumulative architecture for peace created since 1973, and especially the Belfast Agreement of 1998, should be set at nought, though that logically is the inescapable endgame of May’s failure.
The DUP opposed the Belfast Agreement from the beginning and it manifestly opposes its ethos today: it was inevitable that it should seize the opportunity May outrageously gifted it two years ago.
As always in crises in Anglo-Irish relations, the main impetus will have to come from Dublin. Following is one modest thought for a possible point of departure. I sincerely hope that there may be other and better ideas.
Demography has raised tensions to an unexpected degree about the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Brexit has exacerbated these tensions more dangerously than at any time since 1998. The immediate task is to confront and manage those tensions.
First, both sovereign governments – of whatever colour – must visibly reinvigorate their partnership at the core of the Belfast Agreement.
Second, both governments must together re-emphasise that neither government wishes to prejudge how the constitutional uncertainties might eventually play out.
Third, what both governments might clarify – in a possible new departure – is how they could now additionally reassure both communities in Northern Ireland if sovereign Irish unity were at some unknown moment in the future to become the stated wish of a majority in Northern Ireland.
In those circumstances, both governments would observe a treaty-based regime whereby the British government, acting on behalf of the unionist population, would engage with the sovereign Irish government in a continuing process of resolving policy differences.
In other words in the event of sovereign Irish unity, the British government would remain involved in the processes of government of Northern Ireland but in a reversed version of the Irish government’s intrusive role inside the system of government of Northern Ireland under the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Obviously this is a challenging suggestion in the current climate, though no more than restoring the ethos of Anglo-Irish relations as it was under the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Irish governments under Lynch and Cosgrave vs Heath, under FitzGerald vs Thatcher and under Ahern vs (or perhaps more in collaboration with) Blair have striven and succeeded under conditions which were often more daunting.
There is no reason to believe that our government today does not have the Sisyphean tenacity to persuade Johnson and his colleagues that it is worth joining with Dublin in a humble endeavour to win the tremendous prize of creating a permanent stable peace in the millennial chronicle of misery between our two islands. What goal should properly more excite Johnson’s Churchillian ambitions?
Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1981 and negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Agreement from 1983 to 1985