BY JAMIE FOSTER
There are almost no occasions I can recall openly agreeing with Labour’s Barry Gardiner about anything. If you wait long enough everything happens, eventually. His recent remarks to a think tank that Sinn Fein and the Irish Government are playing up fears of the effect of Brexit on the question of the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement are spot on.
There is no doubt that both Sinn Fein and the Irish Government are overplaying the effect of Brexit on the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement. For a start the Good Friday agreement has withstood the complete breakdown of the power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland which are far more fundamental to the agreement than the state of Irish borders. The idea that there will be a return to paramilitary violence after 20 years of peace simply because of a border is nonsense. While it is clear that Sinn Fein still wants a united Ireland, there is no reality to the idea that paramilitaries will pick up guns in order to achieve it.
Secondly, there is no reason why a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is necessary. Customs officers can still investigate the movement of goods across the border without a hard border being in place. Arrangements to ensure that smuggling is kept to a minimum are needed but they don’t begin and end at a hard border. In the end the arrangements that we come to are unlikely to affect the Good Friday agreement at all, let alone undermine it.
Writing in the Guardian, Hillary Clinton raised the temperature on the whole debate by saying that we must not let Brexit affect the Good Friday Agreement. The answer is it won’t. What is far more likely to affect the Good Friday Agreement is the fact that direct rule may need to be implemented due to the fact that parties in Northern Ireland can’t work together. This is a far more important issue than the existence of a border.
There is currently no working power sharing going on and yet there has been no return to para-militarism. This is because peace is a strong force in Northern Ireland and there is no desire to return to the troubles. Those playing up the idea that Brexit will lead to the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement conveniently overlook the fact that the problems with power sharing haven’t led to a similar collapse.
At the moment neither the British nor the Irish governments want a hard border in Northern Ireland. Both are keen to work towards a situation where none arises. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to achieve this end. Voices raised to scare us into believing that Brexit means a return to hard borders have their own agendas. The anti Brexit lobby is keen to spin up fears in this way but should not be deferred to.
Peace has been hard won in Northern Ireland and it has won out over violence. It has brought prosperity and a better way of life to the province. Peace is more important than the wording of any agreement, however lauded. In the end it may be that the Good Friday Agreement itself needs to adapt to keep up with the twists and turns of modern life. This is not to say that Brexit will bring the need for change to the agreement. By the same token the agreement itself is not so sacrosanct as to be immutable.
As I started saying, I do not agree with Barry Gardiner about much, but on this I do agree with him. We must look to the agendas of those raising fears of the Good Friday Agreement failing. There is no need for a hard border in Northern Ireland at all, but even if a border were to become necessary this would not be enough to push Northern Ireland back into violence. In the end with a bit of hard work we should be able to come up with a solution to the problem that removes the need for a hard border and the fears that go with it. Unusual though it is, on this occasion Barry Gardiner is to be counted among the sane voices on this topic.