“Secular liberals and socialists expected tribal passions would gradually disappear, while improved means of communication and a better scientific understanding of the universe would take its place. But it turned out not to be so.” – Leszek Kolakowski
Ireland’s Fukuyama Moment:
Ireland’s leadership class has operated on certain assumptions these past twenty years. Alongside stability within the EU and a world of ever expanding free trade, peace in Northern Ireland was one of them. The Good Friday Agreement in the eyes of the Irish elite marked an ‘end of history’ moment for Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.
The era of sectarian violence and petty nationalism on both sides of the border was over, with Ireland taking its place among normal European nations, while any potential reunification was outsourced to a vote far in the future. This line of thinking met with unanimous support with 71% and 94% of the electorate endorsing the agreement in the North and South respectively.
It was marketed as a no-brainer by both Sinn Féin and mainstream Unionism that after 30 years of internecine warfare, some democratic settlement was needed. The Agreement established the fundamentals for post-conflict multi-party governance in Northern Ireland and outlined the future of the Anglo-Irish and North-South relationships.
A key motif in the Agreement was the notion that identity was something interchangeable rather than essentialist. The Unionists could remain British and Nationalists Irish so long as it remained within a pluralist democracy. The twenty years since the signing of the Agreement seems to validate its worth. The 6 counties entered into a period of stability and prosperity with murder rates declining to an average of 0.9 per 100,000 inhabitants per year down from a peak of 31 per 100,000 in 1972.
Opting for a liberal ‘end of history’ scenario can be forgiven after the decades of bloodshed, but the extent to which the Agreement is mythologised is tiresome and obscures some of the key historical aspects that led to the Agreement.
The IRA, for example, and the demographics that supported it had been exhausted by the 1990s, forcing a peace accord to be reached. It was not a case of Republican leadership becoming misty eyed over the prospect of peace but rather a calculated decision.
Having peaked in 1972 the IRA had been battered through infiltration from British intelligence and counterinsurgency measures clamping down on its ability to function. It was a dynamic understood by Republican seniority and typified by incidents such as the Loughgall ambush with reformist figures like Gerry Adams conscious of the diminishing ability of the IRA to wage war.
Republicans used the political capital gained during the conflict to enshrine the rights of nationalists in a pluralist state, while Unionists were sold the idea that the Union would be protected under the new agreement even though the Orange state would end.
When Theresa May is indifferent towards the future of the Good Friday Agreement, it is driven by an understanding that the conflict was ended not by the Agreement but by the actions of British security services in forcing the IRA to the peace table.
Criticism of the Agreement is absent in Ireland outside of Loyalism (primarily the DUP) and their pro-Brexit allies, and dissident Republican outfits. However there is a rather basic conservative critique that has been absent.
The Good Friday Agreement thought liberal pluralism could result in a world where identity and nationhood would melt away in favour of a globalist state with nationalisms on both sides cast aside. The South of Ireland gave up its constitutional claim to the North, arguably undermining the residual nationalist ethos of the state – something that may come back to haunt us post-Brexit.
An interesting by-product of the Agreement was the legislative birthright citizenship clause that opened up the Republic to the phenomenon of ‘anchor babies’ and which had to be smoothed out with the 27th Amendment Referendum reforming citizenship rights in 2004.
From a historical perspective the Agreement in part can explain the self-satisfied complacency within Irish life the past 20 years. Liberalism had brought peace and prosperity to Ireland with the formerly insoluble issues of tribal identity thrown out in favour of a new Ireland guaranteed by the forces of globalism.
In short, the idea was that if liberalism could solve the Northern conflict it could solve everything else. The Brexit decision and ongoing political stasis in the six counties without an executive since January 2017 should be forewarning of what could be ahead. The framework established by the Agreement has faltered.
Brexit and the prospect of the region being placed on a geopolitical fault line between the UK and EU could potentially the spark to re-ignite conflict. The sectarian state which Catholics justifiably objected to in the 1960s has been swept away along with the demographic energy that supported the war, but even so the ghosts of history are not as easily exorcised as some might think.
Northern Ireland is still a divided society by its very nature, with pockets of paramilitarism still present. A scenario whereby a post-Brexit North could regress back into economic depression and violence exists and Irish society south of the border is oblivious to it.
The North Re-Awakens?
A characteristic of political life in the 26 counties has been indifference towards Northern Ireland. It is a motif present as far back of the Treaty debates of 1922 right up to the cessation of power sharing in 2017.
Partition may be something that liberals try to gloss over and Republicans try to ignore, but it is a part of Irish life even in the manner we think of our island. Southerners are detached not only from day to day life in the six counties but also the political and sectarian dynamics at work.
A harrowing realisation of any Southerner while North of the border is how the security apparatus from the Troubles is still present and ready to snap back into action should communal violence restart. Troops and barricades may be absent, but the inter-community ‘peace walls’ are still functioning and Northern Ireland retains an armed police force.
If the Southern Irish can be said to be indifferent about the six counties then English Tories must be reckless. By virtue of its size, Ireland matters very little in the thinking of Westminster. The British state and the Tories leading Brexit are more than capable of bending the Agreement to breaking point to facilitate their Brexit ambitions. And who can blame them?
The fact that mainstream Tory and Unionist publications are overt in their view that the ‘Good Friday Agreement has outlived its use’ should signal to Southern leadership how the sands are shifting on an issue that was thought to be put to bed.
The ongoing disintegration of the much lauded backstop proposal emphasises the extent to which the Agreement can be cast aside when politically expedient. Within the six counties (particularly within Unionism) there is a sense that the Good Friday Agreement is a spent force in a post-Brexit world.
The DUP, which originally campaigned against the Agreement, stated in October that it is not set in stone, being subservient to the wider Brexit process rather than vice versa. The comments were met with horror within the Republic, but if anything such feeling is becoming commonplace within the Tory Party and British political discourse.
A termination of the Agreement would have considerable fallout both for mainstream nationalism in the form of Sinn Féin and the ailing SDLP as well as in Dublin. The globalist trend-setters so confident in a post-nationalist future since the 1990s will be forced to deal with the realities of partition – the idealism of the Agreement being dispatched for good. Sinn Féin’s defining goal was that unification is best pursued through the terms laid out by the Agreement. It may find itself undermined and opening the door for those more inclined towards militarism.
The reunification of Ireland is something that will be a hard nut to crack from a political, economical, and cultural point of view. Arguably, Brexit is the best thing to happen to Irish nationalism since the First World War which provided the destabilising conditions for the twenty-six county state to form.
Fenianism has as much to fear from liberal reformism as it does British imperialism. Had Home Rule been implemented, the British state likely would have killed most energy for separation. In the same way the Good Friday Agreement, if it continued perpetually, could spell the end of Irish nationalism, entering into a death spiral much the same way Quebecois separatism was defanged by the reforms of the Canadian state.
The move of Sinn Féin from paramilitarism to its modern role (essentially campaigning the British state for human rights) within a single generation shows the merit of this approach from a liberal Unionist perspective.
While Irish policy and opinion makers may have misdiagnosed the cause of Brexit, they are right in saying it will have a net negative impact on the political and economic life of Ireland. However it is the end result of a line of thinking that thought tribalistic conflicts could be ended by empty globalist formulas.
Similar to how Germany was only united by the conservative realpolitik of Bismark in 1870 and not liberalism or socialism, so too will Ireland only be reunified by a realistic doctrine that places faith in the Irish nation and not in outside international bodies.