What are known as ‘The Troubles’ in the recent history of Northern Ireland, an ethnic/sectarian low-level war that began in 1968 and continued until at least 1998, died down after the Good Friday Agreement of the latter year.
The GFA, brokered in large part by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, provided for the decommissioning of the paramilitary units on both sides, Nationalist and Unionist, the creation of cross-border institutions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and ‘devolution’ between Belfast and London: that is, a recognition that the former city would not be taking orders from the latter. Also, the parties agreed on an ‘invisible’ border between the Republic and the North, with free movement in both directions.
Not every party within Northern Ireland’s politics was in accord with this. Sinn Féin was on board on the ‘green’ side, and the Ulster Unionist Party on the ‘orange.’ That seemed to suffice, although the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party sat it out.
Though no sane person desires a return of the violence of the Troubles, such concord as was achieved may now be unravelling. Part of the problem is that the Republic of Ireland is part of the European Union, whence the United Kingdom is exiting. Though the details of ‘Brexit’ have yet to be worked out, it is clear that if the UK, and thus NI, is no longer part of the same ‘common market’ with the Republic, then the border between the two will have to become a good deal more visible.
Right Wing View
The Mitchell agreement of nearly 20 years ago didn’t conclude a peace process. It constituted a very important (and pragmatically successful) step forward in a peace process, but did so only subject to the stipulation that good faith talks on a wide range of subjects would have to continue.
This spring, elections in the U.K. weakened the position of the ruling Conservative Party, and may have made it more reliant on the Democratic Unionist Party, the same hard-liners who sat out the 1998 agreement. The DUP gained seats in the spring election. The Conservatives then secured an alliance with DUP the old-fashioned way, by buying it: promising to spend an extra ₤1 billion in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the peace process has stalled, in part because Sinn Féin is taking a hard line of the rights of Irish language speakers.
Another piece of the puzzle is NI’s budget. The ‘devolved’ political system of Belfast hasn’t been able to budget for itself, and the country may soon find itself living with a budget decided upon in London. That would be a drastic step away from the Mitchell agreement and ‘devolution.’
For a time, October 30 was considered the deadline for a budget agreement that would avert this reversion to direct rule. October 30 has come and gone, and the deadline has been treated as an elastic one. Two days later, though, the Conservative government faced up to the failure of the talks, and the Northern Ireland Minister in Prime Minister May’s government, James Brokenshire, said that the government cannot simply “stand by and allow” NI to “run out of resources.” So they will budget from London.
Left Wing View
Thus far the government to the south, the leadership of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, is understanding of the hiccup in the long peace process. Simon Coveney, the foreign minister there, acknowledges that the partial return of direct rule entailed by Mr. Brokenshire’s announcement has been taken only “with the utmost reluctance and at the latest possible juncture.”
Sinn Féin is less understanding. It complains that the inherent problems of power sharing in the North have been “compounded” by the deal the DUP curt with the Conservatives in London.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, recently suggested that the Good Friday agreement has had its day and should pass into the history books. He said: “It’s within the Good Friday Agreement to debate the future of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Republic of Ireland and I think that’s where that debate should take place,” then adding, “The people of Ireland should decide.”
Those were loaded words, suggesting that the people of the whole island might render the GFA moot by incorporating the North within the Republic.
Corbyn himself stood his ground, tweeting last week, “All I said was that Ireland should decide the future of Northern Ireland. I’ve only been saying that for 30 years!”