Irish Examiner view: Too close to a dangerous unravelling of Good Friday Agreement

1998 deal has worked and must be sustained — or we risk political and social chaos
Irish Examiner view: Too close to a dangerous unravelling of Good Friday Agreement

Nobody wants a return to the bad old days. File picture: PA 

It is a measure of the success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that the North and its interminable conflicts have moved from the everyday, blood-spattered consciousness, and occasional presence, in the lives of nearly everyone on this island to some sort of remote conundrum that may or may not be resolved in the fullness of time.

By its very success, the GFA has marginalised that unsettled, simmering question. 

It has worked and must be sustained, despite the British government’s unilateral decision this week to extend the Irish Sea border grace period for eight months, in defiance of earlier agreements. 

This move, not the first of its kind, provoked Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney to say that the EU is negotiating with a partner it “simply cannot trust ... That is why the EU is now looking at legal options and legal actions ... this is really unwelcome.” 

For a politician usually so diplomatic, this reaction should sound alarm bells.

That the crisis the North’s conflict sustained for too long has been usurped by a global health crisis pushes simmering issues to the margins too. 

Time and changing generations play their part. Without figures as charismatic, as loud, as persistent as John Hume or Ian Paisley holding centre stage, it is all too easy to doze off, to pretend to read the programme notes while thinking of something entirely different. 

Stormont’s regular, self-inflicted suspensions deepen that feeling.

That siesta may be about to end more abruptly than anyone might have expected.

Brexit a catalyst

Brexit is the catalyst, the indifference of the weakest-link British administration and the old, unwavering tribalisms the kinetic energy behind the loudest cage-rattling in years.

Those forces will — because they always do — blame someone else for resurgent tensions. 

It is as if they imagined that the EU might turn a blind eye to the risks posed by a post-Brexit backdoor border on this island. 

Difficulties have arisen and must be resolved — which they can be, if there is a real will to do so.

Not doing so would invite political and social chaos.

That the organisation representing loyalist paramilitaries has told British prime minister Boris Johnson that they are withdrawing support for the GFA until the Irish Sea border is removed underlines the difficulties in realising that objective.

The Loyalist Communities Council letter, despite its insistence that opposition be “peaceful and democratic” raises fears about the loyalist ceasefire which has, more or less, held since 1994. 

That of course is the intention. Imagine, for a moment, the reaction if that threat came from republicans.

Threat to relationships

Relationships that have seemed stable since the GFA would be jeopardised. 

That Johnson did not raise the prospect of breaching the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol — though he insists he did — when he spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Tuesday, a day before the announcement, can only add to that impression.

This very difficult situation will not be resolved without trust, a state all the harder to achieve by the strong impression that one side does not know or understand — or care — what it is doing.

We are, suddenly, closer to a dangerous unravelling than is comfortable.

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