Anyone who thinks Brexit won't bring back violence to Ireland doesn't understand the Good Friday Agreement

Religion in Northern Ireland is like the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave

Tess Finch-Lees
Tuesday 10 April 2018 11:06 BST
If a hard border goes ahead, how will the emergency services coordinate? How many farms will be destroyed?
If a hard border goes ahead, how will the emergency services coordinate? How many farms will be destroyed? (AFP/Getty)

It was the first time I had been to Northern Ireland since my friend, Bridie, wet herself when a British soldier pointed a gun at her. A bunch of 10-year-olds on a school trip, our bus was searched at the border.

Five years after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), I was in Belfast again for work. This time there was no border, no indignity and no fear. Hearing my Dublin accent, a man in his sixties asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Neither, I’m atheist!” I said triumphantly.

“Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

Religion in Northern Ireland is like the Hotel California, I was told. You can check out, but you can never leave.

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Having witnessed the horrors of the Troubles, I never take peace in the province for granted.

When I visited the region on a family holiday last year, children of all religious persuasions played together on the beach. By then, the GFA was firmly embedded and a shared European identity had taken hold. What preoccupied Catholic and Protestant parents alike was not religion, but how to safeguard the hard-won social cohesion and economic security amid increasingly reckless Brexit rhetoric.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Despite the fact that the DUP were the only party that backed Brexit, this right-wing minority group is holding not just Northern Ireland but the entire UK to ransom. Neither Arlene Foster nor Theresa May has any mandate to remove Northern Ireland from the EU, to impose a hard border and rip up the Good Friday Agreement. To impose any of these would give grounds to trigger a unity referendum, provided for within the terms of the GFA.

Good Friday Agreement: Tony Blair recalls 'incredibly complicated and difficult' Northern Ireland talks 20 years on

It’s 14 months since the Northern Ireland executive became locked in political paralysis, exacerbated by the Tory-DUP deal to prop up Theresa May’s Government. Meanwhile, Brexit talks continue in Brussels and, while Scotland and Wales are represented at the table, Northern Ireland is not.

In March, Conservative MP and chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland committee, Andrew Murrison, warned Theresa May that the lack of a functioning executive was a “democratic deficit”, depriving the region of the opportunity to raise Brexit concerns.

The committee also published a report concluding that the Government has failed to produce evidence that an alternative to a hard border in the province can be avoided. The people on the island of Ireland, my family and friends, deserve better. They want to know what Brexit will mean for their livelihoods and their future and with just 12 months to go, Theresa May has yet to answer some fundamental questions.

If Northern Ireland leaves the single market, a hard border is inevitable. What will become of the cross-border collaboration enabling farmers on both sides to compete with their counterparts elsewhere in the world?

Twenty-five per cent of the region’s raw milk goes south of the border to be processed and 40 per cent of Northern Irish lambs are processed in the Republic. A hard Brexit would impede that flow because of tariffs and customs checks. The burden of paperwork around traceability and standards would also be prohibitive.

What will become of patients from the Republic who receive radiotherapy in the North and the children who travel from Belfast to Dublin for heart surgery in the only all-island newly opened world class facility? How will emergency services continue to collaborate?

Northern Ireland already has the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in the UK and can ill afford to lose €3.5bn in EU subsidies up to 2020. How will the British exchequer fill that gap?

By getting into bed with the DUP and riding roughshod over the rigorous impartiality required by the Good Friday Agreement, the Tories are gambling with peace in the province. Despite them having no mandate to impose a hard border and promising there wouldn't be one, their continued inability to propose concrete alternative plans makes a hard border, and a return to sectarian violence, almost inevitable.

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