A top-down solution to the Irish border after Brexit undermines 20 years of peacebuilding

Building peace from the bottom up. Paul J Martin/Shutterstock.com

Twenty years since a landmark peace agreement in Northern Ireland, the complexities of the Brexit process threaten the efforts of those local communities who have spent decades building peace.

In April 2018 it will be the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, better known as the Good Friday Agreement, which established the current structural and symbolic arrangements between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Negotiations on the future of the Irish border after Brexit have seriously undermined the symbolic aspects of this agreement, and possibly the future of political power-sharing and the open border on the island of Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement established equality and “parity of esteem” between those communities who hold different opinions on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or part of the Republic of Ireland. For example, anyone born in Northern Ireland can decide which citizenship to hold: British, Irish or both. The process leading up to and following the agreement was inclusive, extensive and bottom-up, and the final deal was agreed by the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in separate referenda.

Even though the outcome of the Good Friday Agreement has sometimes been considered a political failure, the process of drafting the agreement, the wording used, and its implementation, included commendable principles of inclusiveness. There was a respect for different identities and for the self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland for their own fate.

But the wording of the deal reached in late 2017 during Brexit negotiations for a “soft” border in Ireland is ambiguous – and it means different things to different people. Further details will be discussed in early 2018 as talks continue on the transition period after Brexit.

In the meantime, both the way the negotiations are taking place and the ambiguous outcome has created much fear and uncertainty for those living in the communities that will be most affected.


Read more: Brexit – never underestimate the political potency of symbolism in Northern Ireland


Community involvement

While the political leadership tends to get most of the credit for the peace agreement, the reality on the ground is that hundreds of groups have been actively involved in the peacebuilding process. They have worked both to support their own communities, and with “the other” community, promoting understanding and healing, and generally providing alternative ways to approach conflict.

My own research, which mapped peacebuilding organisations in and around Ireland, showed that at least 289 small formal organisations have been involved in peacebuilding efforts from the early 1970s until today. Many of these organisations were funded by the Special European Union Programmes Body following the GFA. While much of their work has now been wound up and funding decreased, most of these organisations still exist and many are finding a new lease of life due to Brexit.

Groups such as Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, based in County Wicklow, have worked tirelessly for four decades to build a web of relationships that cross political and religious divides. This quiet work behind the scenes is essential to a successful peace process, yet these efforts rarely appear in the headlines. Glencree board member, Pat Hynes, told me:

The uncertainty around Brexit has highlighted the challenges as to how we continue to deepen the relationships agreed in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

Some organisations, such as the Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Foundation for Peace in Warrington, are located at sites of trauma, where bombings took place during the Troubles. Victims and survivors responded and coped by raising awareness of alternative ways to address conflict, other than violence. Many groups were established to serve specific groups of victims, survivors, former prisoners and former combatants. For example, the Ex-Prisoners Interpretive Centre in Belfast was founded in 1995 to help young men who had been involved in loyalist paramilitary groups – specifically the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando – reintegrate back into society.

A mural in Belfast. Jack Stow/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Brexit border negotiations

Even if the Brexit border negotiations are deemed successful, the unilateral, top-down approach has undermined and continues to threaten years of peacebuilding by hundreds of community groups. Long-time community leader, Duncan Morrow, argues that the Brexit negotiations have taken a “unilateral hammer” to the principles enshrined in the GFA by generating fear and uncertainty.

The discussions in Westminster and Brussels are far removed from the communities who live in the Irish border area. After all, 55.78% of people in Northern Ireland voted not to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum. The hope is that the cross-community relationships that have formed in the last 20 years will be strong enough to keep fear and uncertainty from completely unravelling the progress made since the Good Friday Agreement.

Politicians discussing post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland would be wise to talk to those communities most effected by the outcome, as they will make or break a successful transition, whatever that turns out to be.