An east-west solution to the post-Brexit Irish Border arrangements is the best way to safeguard peace
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheal Martin walking in the gardens at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, August 2020 | PA Images
Britain must secure a post-Brexit Irish border solution that safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, with no attacks on infrastructure or policing
For too many in Great Britain, the island of Ireland and its delicate political balance of intra-Northern and UK/Republic relationships is, to borrow a phrase from Neville Chamberlain, a far-away country of which we know little. I continue to be amazed by the current lack of knowledge or interest in the political and social affairs of a part of our country and our near neighbour.
For some, the fear of offending either one tradition or the other precludes engagement. For others, there is a feeling that devolution is up and running, the Good Friday Agreement is in place, so job done – we can let them get on with things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Violence is still an all-too-common feature in Northern Ireland. The punishment beatings, protection rackets and cross-border smuggling continue. And, as an increasing number of our fellow citizens across NI no longer identify with one of the ‘traditions’, it is perhaps not surprising that those who do become more muscular.
A significant proportion of smuggling proceeds fills the coffers of the men of violence. It is for this reason that Brexit must be delivered with a keen eye on the all-Ireland peace impact. To maintain the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, whatever Brexit solution was alighted upon, would always have a knock-on effect. The challenge remains to minimise it.
My take is that the east-west solution is the ‘peace solution’. It is hard to envisage physical attacks being made on any infrastructure or its policing. The same cannot be said for anything, and I mean anything, that manifests itself north-south. Any physical infrastructure, or those implementing them, becomes a target for those who wish to destabilise the Jenga-like peace. The nationalist grey-beards may claim (as their predecessors did) that violence has no part to play in NI. They are right, but the young hot-heads do not agree, as the recent arrests in Operation Arbacia confirm.
The east-west solution is the peace solution. It is hard to envisage attacks on any infrastructure or its policing
To alight on the post-Brexit east-west protocol option is not perfect; it creates costs that must, as my committee has argued, be light-touch and cost-neutral as far as business is concerned.
I know that many see this as nibbling away at the union and giving ground to avoid the resurrection of violent nationalism. I understand their concern but I remain to be convinced that UK citizens define their national sense of belonging by the customs arrangements that brought them their breakfast cereal. Our sense of nationhood is too strong and compelling for that. We must remind ourselves daily of the miracle that is the Good Friday Agreement. Out of blood, hatred, mistrust and history, people – implacably opposed to each – came together and alighted upon something that allowed peace and progress.
There is still a lot of work to do to see it grow to maturity. A lot of goodwill, give and take and mature reflection is required. But for those of us who remember, in real time, Brighton, Harrods, Warrington, Manchester and the Baltic Exchange, can we honestly say that we believed anything like the Good Friday Agreement could or would be delivered? That the centuries of mistrust would turn to decades of co-operation? That is why we must celebrate and protect it.
The peace post-Good Friday is tiny when compared to the volume of violence that went before it. A light breeze could chill it to the marrow. A Conservative and Unionist government cannot allow that to happen. Northern Ireland – its future, its peace – cannot be that far-away country of which we know little. We are at a crossroads. Let’s take the right road.
Simon Hoare is Conservative MP, North Dorset and chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee