by Kevin Meagher
Nineteen years ago this week, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoiseach and the various political parties were in the final stages of agreeing what became the Belfast Agreement, better known, given the day it was finalised, as the Good Friday Agreement.
It was a triumph for all involved and, whatever else his critics point to, Blair’s crowning achievement; a superb piece of leadership and political tradecraft.
It was a deal that ensured cross-community power-sharing and a devolved assembly.
The end of the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland and the release of paramilitary prisoners.
Strengthened east-west links between the Irish and British governments and north-south bodies to create all-Ireland institutions.
It is a deal that has provided two decades of relative peace and normality and become a lodestar in the field of conflict resolution.
But the Good Friday Agreement settlement is now faltering.
The collapse of the power-sharing executive in January, (following Arlene Foster’s woeful handling of a £500m heating subsidy), Sinn Fein’s strengthened mandate in the subsequent assembly elections and the current difficulty with restoring the executive are testing its resilience as a model.
The broader truth is that the Good Friday Agreement was never meant to last. It was always a stop-gap solution. An interregnum. A transition space between the conflict of the Troubles and the advent, eventually, of a unified Irish state.
The agreement is underpinned by the principle of consent – that there can be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status unless a majority so wishes it. Of course, flip that around and it means there will be a change when there is consent.
The net effect of which is that Northern Ireland will remain a contested territory. And one the British state shows less and less interest in maintaining, even though we are not so sanguine about our sovereignty in other instances.
Where Northern Ireland is quietly seen as a problem worth jettisoning, Scotland is regarded as an asset to the UK worth holding on to.
MPs were more than happy to make the trip north to campaign to keep Scotland in the Union during the 2014 referendum on independence. Ties of affection and the practical difficulties of divorcing the two principal parts of the UK were powerful motivators.
A few committed unionists aside, there will be no procession of MPs and party campaigners trudging the highways of North Antrim and the byways of South Armagh trying to keep Northern Ireland in the Union when the referendum on its constitutional future eventually comes.
There will be an audible sigh of relief that it’s gone.
In finding an accommodation between those who wish to see a united Ireland and those who want to remain part of the UK (constitutionalists and militants alike), the Good Friday Agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an antechamber.
The door to the Union closed behind it and opens out (eventually) onto a united Ireland.
It is dishonest to pretend this was not the intention all those years ago and, as the settlement begins to show its age, we need to start talking about Northern Ireland’s long term future.
We need to start by internalising the reality that it doesn’t really have one. It has, at best, a medium-term lifespan.
Within a decade (possibly sooner) the Catholic-Nationalist community will outnumber the Protestant-Unionist one. When that feeds through into the electorate, there will be demands for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status and when that happens, it is gone.
Tellingly, the recent assembly elections saw overt unionist parties lose their majority for the first time.
So it’s high time this issue was on everyone’s radar, if for no other reason than for political and financial risk management.
After all, the short-term challenges Northern Ireland faces are dramatic and by the early 2020s, Brexit will have plunged it into financial and political chaos.
It currently benefits from around €600m of funding a year from the European Union. Even if Whitehall manages to wangle a transitional arrangement out of the Commission as part of the Brexit negotiations, it’s hard to see how that funding could possibly last beyond 2020.
Of course, if Britain goes down with a dose of the Brexit-related economic sniffles, Northern Ireland will be flat on its back with tuberculosis.
We know this because analysis from the assembly’s own committee for enterprise, trade and investment tells us as much. Its respected independent adviser, Dr. Leslie Budd from the Open University’s Business School, reckons Brexit could knock three per cent off Northern Ireland’s GDP. That’s tens of thousands of jobs.
Inward investment is another disaster waiting to happen. At her party conference last year, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, accused Dublin of sending trade officials around the world ‘to talk down our economy, and to attempt to poach our investors.’
Does Foster not even understand the elementary rules of capitalism? Frankly, why would any investor choose post-Brexit Northern Ireland over the Irish Republic?
As its inward investment agency gleefully puts it on its homepage:
“Ireland is a committed member of the European Union and provides companies with guaranteed access to the European market. Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Eurozone and provides an ideal hub for organisations seeking a European base.”
Northern Ireland’s private sector, already anaemic, will be reduced to the sandwich van outside the studio where they film Game of Thrones. (Until they stop making it next year).
And we’re still no clearer about whether we will see a hard border between Northern and southern Ireland, with ministers protesting they don’t want that to happen, but powerless at this stage to rule it out.
The reunification of the island of Ireland would counter all these disastrous effects, representing an evidence-based solution to the difficulties thrown up by Brexit.
So this is not a question of romantic Irish nationalists pining for the reunification of the island. It’s actually about pointing out to dewy-eyed unionists that Northern Ireland’s model is politically and economically stone-cold dead.
And that reunification is the rational alternative. The sensible and pragmatic argument. If for no other reason than the overwhelming economic benefits of a creating a single Irish state have been calculated at up to €38 billion over the first eight years.
But we can’t just wait for this inexorable sequence of events to unravel and land us with a massive political problem.
Neither is it fair to mislead the Protestant-Unionist community that we are more committed to maintaining the status quo than we are. (After all, it’s ‘Team GB’, not ‘Team GB&NI’).
The Good Friday Agreement was a masterly display of ‘creative ambiguity,’ with something for everyone to buy into. But it’s time for British politics to start coming clean: the clock is already ticking on the day Northern Ireland will cease to exist.
So we need to start discussing and planning for it.
Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback