As autumn arrives in Northern Ireland a many-sided crisis, already developing, will affect all our lives.
There is a crisis of governance at a UK level. The current government, headed by Boris Johnson, has a working majority of one in the House of Commons, even with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The newly appointed cabinet is made up largely of committed supporters of Brexit, many from the far right wing of the Conservative Party. The government is actively preparing for a ‘no-deal’ exit from the European Union (EU) and has rejected any negotiations with the EU unless the latter abandon the ‘Irish backstop’, which is highly unlikely. There is clear evidence that there is a majority in the House of Commons against leaving the EU with no deal, but it is uncertain whether there is a parliamentary mechanism to prevent it.
There is a crisis of governance in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, the Conservative government relies on a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP to continue governing, which gives one section of the community a disproportionate influence on government and casts doubt on whether it is capable of governing with the “rigorous impartiality” demanded by the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. On the other hand, the talks designed to re-establish a devolved government here seem stuck in an arid process with little real negotiation. Without an agreement to move forward on the basis of human rights and equality, no restitution of devolved government will be practical or legitimate.
There is a many-sided crisis of confidence in Northern politics and institutions. The peace process was already imperfectly implemented and there have been aspects of a ‘roll-back’ on human rights protections in recent years. Pertinent examples of this include the failure of the UK state to deal with its past violations, regression in human rights based policing, inadequate enforcement of the equality duty, and the negative impact of austerity policies on social and economic rights. The impact of the Brexit campaign – and the political instability since – have exacerbated the situation. Even before an actual exit, the abandonment of the principles of self-determination and consent, the prospective inequality between British and Irish citizenship, and the dismissal of the inherent value of Irish citizenship that has been revealed, all weaken confidence in the good faith of our leaders.
The legacy of the conflict continues to be toxic for current relations. The UK failure to meet its international obligations to properly investigate crimes of the past, the attempts to give impunity to soldiers and other state agents, and the shocking twenty-year delay in properly compensating victims bring despair to many. There is no sign of the draft legislation which exists to implement the Stormont House Agreement being introduced in Parliament.
The reality and symbols of a divided society continue to create tension. Segregated housing and structural discrimination in allocation lead to, amongst other things, territorial displays which are intimidatory and can lead to civil unrest. Political conflict arises over symbols as diverse as portraits of the monarch and the flags of proscribed organisations. Legal certainty and the rule of law are currently undermined by the failure of relevant institutions to properly establish the boundary between protected freedom of expression and hate expression, which should be sanctioned.
Underlying all this, there is what might be termed an existential crisis in both nationalism and unionism. Many nationalists have found the past three years deeply concerning in terms of their guaranteed place in Northern Ireland society on a basis of equality. Many unionists feel that changed demographics and social attitudes will in the long term undermine their identity and communal existence. Negative aspects of these feelings may crystallise around a future debate on the constitutional future.
If a no-deal Brexit occurs, Northern Ireland will suffer immediate economic, social and political damage. Trade will be instantly disrupted because of the lack of a common regulatory framework between the UK and EU. There will be a crisis in agriculture as the movement of live animals and milk across the border ceases. The NI civil service reckon on the loss of 40,000 jobs. All this will occur in the context of the end of mitigation measures in social security cuts.
If there are checks of any kind on the border, the lives of people on both sides will be severely disrupted. Any infrastructure whatsoever will be the focus of protest and probably violence. Smuggling is likely to increase exponentially and the consequent enforcement measures could turn some border areas into locations of new violent conflict. Immigration enforcement will be escalated and, with the probable impossibility of border checks, will be mainly in country, turning Northern Ireland into ‘one big border’. Our region will be the site of widespread, racially discriminatory immigration enforcement, contrary to human rights and the promise of a free and fair society.
All this will be played out in a context where the ‘New IRA’ murderers of Lyra McKee and other dissident republicans try to kill police officers and routinely torture and maim young people and where armed loyalist paramilitary organisations continue to exist and engage in intimidation, feuding, organised crime and sectarian and other racist attacks.
These are some of the parameters of a political, social and economic crisis. There is a clear challenge to political stability and we know from experience how quickly political confrontation can develop into civil unrest and how that can end in armed conflict. Of course, much in the immediate future depends on the initiatives and reactions to crisis of government and relevant agencies such as the police. Their roles should not be overlooked in any discussion of the future. However, it is also necessary to reassure the people, to build structures that can hold the peace in stormy weather, and to make a reality of a society based on human rights, which will extend across this island. That was the promise of the Good Friday Agreement – a promise which we need to ensure is fulfilled.
That is why the time is now ripe for a ‘renaissance of the peace process’. We do not need to rip up the past and devise entirely new solutions for the future. The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement was designed for political turbulence – it could not have brought relative peace otherwise. The concept of ‘renaissance’ means a re-birth of the agreement principles, going back to basics and implementing what was neglected, but also adapting and developing solutions for the new challenges coming down the road. We need to make people feel safe and secure in their identities and ability to access protection of their rights. After the past couple of years, society on this island will never be the same again. Things that people thought fixed and settled have become fluid – they need practical reassurance.
There is plenty of room for discussion and negotiation over the details, but in broad terms a renaissance of the peace process will ideally involve three elements. First, we need to implement what was left undone. Second, we need to repair what is broken. Third and finally, we need to put in place new guarantees to correct the problems that the Brexit process has exposed or created, and to meet the challenge of constitutional change.
Discussion around these ideas will be the subject matter of an upcoming conference, ‘A Renaissance of the Peace Process? What kind of society do we need?’, which is being held on 27 September 2019 in Queen’s University Belfast. You can find full details on EventBrite. The conference is being organised by CAJ in collaboration with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), QUB Human Rights Centre, and Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.
We look forward to the debate and the consequent action.