Is the Irish Backstop Removal Threatening the Good Friday Agreement?

As 31 October edges closer, No. 10 seems to have reached a new deal with EU leaders. The Prime Minister believes this new Brexit Bill will pass through the House of Commons even without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP opposes the new deal as it doesn’t deliver the possibility for Ulster to give a veto over the new customs arrangement. While this deal dictates for Northern Ireland to remain within the UK’s customs territory, it also aligns Ulster to the EU single market. According to DUP statements, the new contingency plan violates the Good Friday Agreement as The Northern Ireland Assembly will get a vote every four years on trading matters by reaching a simple majority, unlike the current system, which requires a majority of both unionists and nationalists to pass rules.

The Troubles

However, the Irish border is still the most crucial point as it’s likely to become an ideal ground for potential criminal activities while also igniting old grudges between Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland. Parliament rejected Theresa May’s deal three times, pointing out that the Backstop was a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result. Boris Johnson’s hostility towards the Backstop has been the trademark of his political campaign, though the renovated Brexit deal cedes Ulster to EU as much as the Backstop draft agreement would have done.

The significance of the Good Friday Agreement is unavoidably bound to the conflict that, through the centuries, it has shaped Ireland’s political layout. Three successive phases have occurred leading to the conflict known as The Troubles. The seed of these enmities can be traced back to the late 15th century and the Plantation of Ulster, during the reign of James VI. The colonisation of North-East Ireland ensured the dominance of the Anglican Church in Ireland as Scottish and English people settled in the area with the specific purpose of expropriating the native Irish of their arable lands. Following the colonisation, an Ulster Protestant community, still bound to Great Britain and previously settled in the province, heightened divisions among colonists and Catholics. In the latter part of the 16th century, the introduction of Penal Laws sharpened discrimination against Catholics. The Acts of Union 1800 abolished the Irish Parliament, founded in 1297, and merged Ireland with the United Kingdom while at the same time, led to the end of discrimination and persecution against Catholics by promoting their Catholic emancipation.

The second phase, between the 19th and 20th century, marked the rise of two political factions in Northern Ireland: Unionists and Home Rule Movement backers. The latter were keen to restore an Irish Parliament to promote a measure of self-government. This historical period saw the contraposition of paramilitary groups from both sides such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the IRA (Irish Republican Army). Nationalists reached self-determination through the establishment of the First Dáil, the Irish Parliament, in 1918, and The Irish War of Independence fought between 1919 and 1921. The conflict ended with a ceasefire in July 1921, though violence continued in the area of Belfast, which had previously become part of Northern Ireland under British Law, along with six other counties. Unionists, most of whom were Protestant, decided to remain within the United Kingdom as established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

The rise of IRA

The critical situation at the border in Northern Ireland was far from being solved as fighting and rioting continued until the outbreak of the Irish Civil War between 1922 and 1923. The new conflict threatened the creation of an Irish Free State, which nationalists nevertheless proclaimed in December 1922. Indeed, the Anti-Treaty IRA deemed the new treaty to be an act of treason of the Irish Republic as the Anglo-Irish Treaty made Ireland an autonomous dominion of the Crown. The head of state was the British Monarch. The war ended with the confirmation of the Irish Free State, but the death toll was greater than the previous war.

By the 1960s, discrimination against Catholics were the order of the day as the unionist government in Northern Ireland endorsed Protestants in local elections by minimizing Catholic delegation, while also demonstrating unfavourable public housing allocation policy.

The sectarian conflict displayed the features of a political struggle instead of religious strife in which both the Irish language and Irish history were banned from school while the Sinn Fein party was not allowed to participate in Northern Ireland elections until 1974. Between 1968 and 1969, tensions increased as the Ulster government forcibly suppressed all Catholic demonstrations. Frequent rioting occurred in Derry, as Belfast unionists burnt down Catholic districts in Belfast, and the British Army built walls to separate sectarian communities in Belfast. The Northern Ireland government lowered public housing bias and gerrymandering towards Catholics, though it also introduced new severe measures such as the internment without trial in 1971.

Bloody Sunday

The conflict reached a new peak of violence on January 20, 1972, when a British commando shot dead 14 people by trying to halt a Catholic civil rights protest in Londonderry. The killings, known as Bloody Sunday, represented one of the most dramatic events to occur throughout The Troubles. As a reaction to Bloody Sunday, Provos (Provisional Irish Republican Army) gained more approval from civil society; hence, an increasing number of nationalists joined up. In the same year, Provos countered their opponents with a grenade attack by setting off 22 bombs in Belfast’s downtown. Seven civilians and two soldiers died in the incident, which went down in history as Bloody Friday. The use of explosives became the modus operandi on both sides, causing the death of 350 Catholic and 88 Protestant civilians between the years 1974-1976.

The IRA internees lost their status of war prisoner while detained in Maze Prison by being given the status of a common criminal. Blanket protests and defacing prison’s walls with their faeces were the only tools IRA prisoners had to protract their remonstrance against the detention. Hunger strikes became significantly popular among IRA prisoners in Maze prison throughout the 1980s. Following a series of bomb attacks perpetrated by the IRA in 1984, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which enabled Ireland to have a consultative role in Northern Ireland government. Opposition came from loyalist wing, and violence spread once again through renewed bombing. The ceasefire in 1997 permitted all political sides to begin peace talks whereby the Social Democratic Labour Party, The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, the UUP, the Ulster Democratic Party, and Sinn Fein came together to find a diplomatic resolution. All political parties signed The Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, which established a power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland, the withdrawal of British troops, and the establishment of a boundaries cooperation. Notwithstanding the new pact’s signature, The Real Irish Republican Party detonated a bomb in Omagh causing the death of 29 people. The IRA permanently laid down its arms in 2005, along with unionist and loyalist paramilitary organizations.

The Irish Backstop

The Irish Backstop was a draft agreement planned to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. The Backstop would have kept Northern Ireland within the single market hence bound by the entire EU customs Code and EU customs territory. On October 10, 2019, the UK and EU did not ratify the Backstop as a new deal was about to be disclosed. Northern Ireland opposed the Backstop as it believed it would be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Moreover, hard Brexiters saw the Backstop as a gimmick by European leaders to indefinitely bind the UK to the EU single market.

Albeit the Backstop has been removed from Johnson’s new deal, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s customs zone as tariffs on products entering Northern Ireland will not be applied as long as they don’t cross the border. In recent months, it appears both the UK and EU have made contradictory declarations for a firm political strategy in the mutual interest of emerging unperturbed yet unwilling to negotiate.

For over three centuries, nationalists and unionists have been at war, and more than 3,500 people were killed in the conflicts. The creation of no-go areas amplified the consequences of sectarian strife whereby paramilitary groups and security forces dictated the daily agenda of Northern Ireland. The introduction of new measures such as those proposed in Johnson’s deal, may put the stability of Ulster at risk, as they will provides with border and checks on goods. As long as Brexit remains unfinalised, peace in Northern Ireland is ensured by the permanence of the UK in the European Union. According to a report that The UK in a Changing Europe recently published, the new Brexit deal would decrease income per capita GDP by 6.4%, unlike 4.9% for Theresa May’s deal. The report underlines how the new draft agreement will reduce UK living standards when compared to staying in the EU. While it may be true that the Backstop was a tool to align the UK with an EU customs arrangement, it also was the sole way to guarantee peace.

Despite an anti-EU sentiment being present in British society, the Eurozone debt crisis and immigration from other European countries, have hugely exacerbated Euroscepticism in the UK. Given that a Brexit referendum was highly likely following the 2010 elections, the British ruling class has deliberately neglected the Irish border issue, and in doing so disregarded the role the European Union has played to ensure Northern Ireland’s peace process.