“The Conservative Party has shown itself incapable of acting in good faith to protect a fragile peace that may not withstand another lost decade.”Peter Leary
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has been the bedrock of peace on and between the islands of Britain and Ireland for more than twenty years. Signed in 1998 and endorsed by referenda on both sides of the Irish border, it brought an end to three decades of conflict during which, nearly four thousand people were killed and nearly fifty thousand injured. The provisions contained in the Agreement, including a power-sharing executive and assembly for Northern Ireland, and commitments to rights, equality and mutual respect, represent a significant step forward for a deeply unequal and divided society, in which, discrimination and repression had once been the norm. Consisting of both a compromise between the local parties and an international treaty lodged with the UN, it recognises the right of people in the north of Ireland to identify as Irish or British or both, and provides a democratic path to achieve Irish unity should a majority in both parts of Ireland wish to do so. Now, that carefully balanced Agreement is under unprecedented strain.
Winning consent for such a deal called for enormous effort on all sides. Making the institutions work also required an ongoing, active engagement that not only involved Ireland and Britain, but also drew on international support from governments, political parties and civil society organisations as far afield as the USA, Europe and South Africa. But in 2007, Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin entered the joint office of First and Deputy First Minister, and for the next ten years those two parties shared executive office. The contribution of the last Labour government to this process easily ranks as its most important achievement.
Jeremy Corbyn and other leading figures in the Labour Party have a proud record of supporting the causes of peace, justice and democracy in Ireland, and the Good Friday Agreement itself.
Deliberately misrepresented today by the Conservative Party and its many media allies, the Labour left was among the first to recognise the need for dialogue to put a stop to violence. Along with other policy positions championed by the left – including women’s and LGBT rights – support for inclusive negotiations eventually became mainstream, showing that the entire Labour movement can play a part in promoting necessary change and building understanding.
But as co-guarantors of the Agreement, the governments in Dublin and London have a very particular part that they alone can play. For almost ten years, Tory and Tory-led administrations have singularly failed to rise to that challenge.
Since 2010, ideologically driven austerity has deprived a society still recovering from conflict trauma of much-needed resources, while David Cameron’s infamous inattention to detail helped to allow momentum to be lost. Solemn commitments made under Labour – such as to legislate to protect the rights of Irish language speakers – have been forgotten or ignored. During the same period, the DUP abused the ‘petition of concern’ – a mechanism designed to prevent discrimination against any one section of the community – to instead block steps towards equality including equal marriage, and has resisted all attempts to enhance women’s reproductive rights.
In January 2017, with the DUP and its now leader Arlene Foster engulfed in a scandal involving large amounts of public funds, the power-sharing assembly and executive collapsed acrimoniously. More than 1,000 days later, these bodies have not met since.
Instead of lending its weight to efforts to resolve the current impasse, the actions of the Tory Party have made matters worse. Having lost her majority in the 2017 general election, Theresa May bought the backing of the DUP in parliament with the promise of £1bn of public money earmarked for that party’s pet infrastructure projects. Already, the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum had led to heightened tensions in a still divided region where a clear majority backed Remain.
Senior Tories have competed since to demonstrate their indifference to the peace process and to Ireland. Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, casually announced her ignorance of the region’s political divisions. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson wondered whether the Irish border was really any more complex than that between the London boroughs of Westminster and Camden. And disgracefully , the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, implied that food shortages imposed on Ireland might bring the troublesome island to heel during the Brexit talks. Recently, the so-far unsuccessful court case taken by Emma DeSouza to assert her rights as an Irish and European citizen further highlighted the failure of successive British governments to introduce the legislation needed to give full effect to the Agreement’s promises. And in April this year, the spectre of renewed violence was manifest in the tragic killing of young journalist Lyra McKee.
At the time of writing, the Brexit ‘deal’ proposed by Boris Johnson looks set to store up uncertainty for the future on the border, and the Conservative Party has shown itself incapable of acting in good faith to protect a fragile peace that may not withstand another lost decade.
Only a Labour government in London will resolutely commit to meeting the local and international, political, moral and material obligations that the Good Friday Agreement demands. Not for the first time, the cause of peace in Ireland and the cause of Labour in Britain seem intertwined.
- Peter Leary is a historian of modern Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/peterleary