On Friday, former NI-Secretary Owen Paterson tweeted “The collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland shows the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use” with a link to a Daily Telegraph article written by Ruth Dudley Edwards. The crucial paragraph from the Edwards piece is the final one:
“Realists believe the GFA has served its purpose and run its course, leaving behind the unintended consequence of enshrining sectarianism in the political process. Rationally, Ireland and the UK should face the truth, and begin a renegotiation and updating of the GFA. But with Brexit preoccupying both, the hot money seems to be on fudged direct rule and undeserved concessions to the wrecking party in the hope of bribing it back into power. It is a gloomy scenario.”
While the above is written carefully, discussing the idea of “renegotiation” as opposed to outright abandonment of the peace process, it is indicative of a quietly handled shift that is happening in Brexit thinking: that the Good Friday Agreement is no longer a sacred cow. Owen Paterson retweeting the provocative headline underscores this. Dan Hannan, a sort of human barometer of Brexiteering (watch for it: if Hannan says the time has come for a soft Brexit, the game is truly up), tweeted the following yesterday:
1. Corbyn will side with any cause, however monstrous, provided it is anti-West
2. The Good Friday Agreement has failed
3. Don’t fall for the romantic myth of Jacobitism
The tweet then links to a Telegraph article that starts with some stuff about Corbyn and the Communist spy malarkey, and proceeds to this on the topic of the GFA:
“The Belfast Agreement is often spoken about in quasi-religious terms – literally, for it is more widely known as the Good Friday Agreement. But its flaws have become clearer over time. The original deal represented a bribe to two sets of hardliners who, having opposed power-sharing, came to support it when they realised that they would be the direct beneficiaries. For 20 years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch. A permanent grand coalition leaves them free to reward their supporters with subsidies and sinecures.
“Well, that’s better than shooting each other,” say well-meaning people. But the Belfast Agreement was a consequence, not a cause, of the end of terrorism, and there are less corrupting ways to guarantee civilian politics.”
This is dangerous in countless ways, but I’ll stick to the ones I think most pertinent. One, introducing the idea that the GFA is almost totally incidental to the peace that has existed in Norther Ireland over the past two decades – as if it was a mere technicality underpinning a vast process as opposed to the glue that holds that peace together. Two, arguing for the supposed ease of getting another peace agreement in Northern Ireland to replace the GFA. One that presumably doesn’t involve a power sharing arrangement, remember. As if Sinn Fein and the DUP could have a weekend away together and come up with a new and improved means of avoiding large scale violence in Ireland, all while getting nothing for themselves in the process. Of course, one could point out that these two parties couldn’t come to an agreement about sitting in a parliament together, never mind a whole new constitutional settlement that will underpin peace in the region, but Hannan has actually dealt with this in his own inimitable way. That’s what the “Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch” line is all about – as if you could get a replacement GFA, easily, on the hoof, in the midst of the Brexit negotiations, all while bypassing both the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties completely along the way. Does Hannan actually believe something so outrageously politically naïve?
One can’t help but think that because the Good Friday Agreement is a tricky obstacle on the way towards a hard Brexit, it needs to be talked down just a wee bit. I also can’t help but notice that the Brexiteer idea that a new Good Friday Agreement will be the easiest thing in the world sounds a lot like what they thought the Brexit negotiations with the EU were going to be like a little over a year ago. Whatever the motivation, the GFA cannot become collateral damage in all of this, under any circumstances.