‘Stampeding backwards’: US officials in Northern Ireland peace deal decry Brexit

Posted By: June 29, 2016


Distributed by Irish National Caucus

Diplomats involved in Good Friday agreement warn against ‘horrendous’ prospect of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

David Smith . The Guardian. Tuesday, June 28, 2016

American diplomats who helped broker the Northern Ireland peace process have condemned the UK’s vote to quit the European Union and described the prospect of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland as “horrendous”.

The US was one of the main guarantors of the April 1998 Good Friday agreement and can point to the subsequent decline in sectarian violence as a signature foreign policy success in recent times.

 But last week’s Brexit decision cast a shadow over the only part of the UK that shares a land border with the EU. A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain, a result that could potentially reopen old wounds. Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, called for a poll on Irish reunification, while experts warned that a physical border with the Republic would almost certainly have to be reconstituted.

Bruce Morrison, a former US congressman credited with recruiting President Bill Clinton to the peace process, said on Monday: “I think overall it’s a terrible decision for the EU, the west and Europe. It’s stampeding backwards. There’s nothing, in my view, good to say about the decision, but we’ll make the best of it.”

The Good Friday agreement is not in immediate jeopardy, he insisted, but Northern Ireland will miss the billions of pounds it receives in EU funding. “I don’t think that it’s going to unravel the agreement, but I think it takes away a level of support for the peace process and for the Northern Ireland that exists in the European Union, where a substantial amount of investment to assist Northern Ireland has occurred. So that’s definitely going to be undercut, if not fully eliminated,” Morrison said.

Morrison urged politicians to retain the free, near seamless passage that people currently enjoy between north and south. The border checks of the Troubles have been described as “militarised sites of fear and oppression” and a renewed border could be psychologically damaging after decades of effort to promote peace and reconciliation.

“A hard border would be a horrendous result and I would think that sensible people in London and in Dublin would work to prevent a hard border,” he said. “I think there are ways to have a soft border even though the EU no longer covers both parts of Ireland.”
A member of Congress from Connecticut from 1983 to 1991, Morrison helped secure a US visa for Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, enabling negotiations that culminated in the Good Friday agreement and a sharp reduction in – though not total eradication of – sectarian attacks. Under the peace deal, the secretary of state can call a border poll when there is clear evidence that public opinion has shifted towards a united Ireland.

“I think the political circumstances are going to unravel in ways that are yet to be seen,” he continued. “Obviously, if Scotland carries through with a new referendum and it comes out the other way, that is going to destabilise the United Kingdom for sure, and the role of Northern Ireland in the UK will become more uncertain. In the process of that happening, there will certainly be advocacy for a joining of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland through some kind of border poll.”

Morrison endorsed the current Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers’ view that there is not majority support for such a poll, but warned that a decline in investment from a distracted Britain could add fuel to the fire.
“All of that is going to be unsettled and it encourages people to strain the relationship between nationalists and unionists prematurely. Sooner or later things are going to change in Northern Ireland, probably on the constitutional question, but right now the work is about building bridges between the two communities, and this doesn’t necessarily advance that,” he said.

However, Morrison, who has Irish ancestry and earlier this year received a peace building award from the Irish president, refused to be pessimistic. “I think the doomsayers about the peace process are undervaluing the amount of progress that has been made, and I don’t think the politicians in the north are just going to lightly throw it away, although there will probably be debates that will be more contentious than they might have been in other circumstances.”

 Brexit was firmly opposed by former senator George Mitchell, who as US special envoy chaired the negotiations that led to the 1998 peace deal. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in April, he said a UK departure from the EU would be “harmful” to Northern Ireland.

Among the reasons he gave was the high probability of another Scottish referendum for independence. “To me, I’m not from Northern Ireland, but knowing the people there well, and knowing many people in Scotland, to think that Northern Ireland and Scotland would be in different countries is simply so inconsistent with their whole history which continues to this day,” Mitchell said.
At the same event, Mitchell Reiss, former US special envoy for Northern Ireland, warned of a “triple whammy” of economic damage, becoming less attractive to US investors, and brain drain. “I think a lot of young people in Northern Ireland are proud of the fact that they’re European, so I can anticipate that there would be a brain drain as the most talented people who have the most options in Northern Ireland might want to opt out and maybe go south, or they could go to other places because they’d have choices.”

Current members of Congress are considering holding a hearing on Brexit, including the implications for Northern Ireland’s 1.8m people, in the House foreign affairs committee.

 Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, described the Good Friday agreement as “one of the main foreign policy achievements in the world in my lifetime” and suggested that the US might intervene to protect it.

“Nearly 20 years after a hard border coming down, and great integration between the northern six counties and the 26 countries that make up the Irish Republic, to all of a sudden return to a hard border would simply be intolerable and a giant step backwards,” said Boyle, whose father was born and raised in County Donegal. “That would be backsliding and that would be retreating from the Good Friday agreement.

“As the United States is one of the guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, I do not believe we can in any way allow that to move forward. As the Good Friday agreement shows, the United States has enormous diplomatic, economic and other tools that can be used in a positive and constructive way and I think this is another occasion on which they may be needed.”

 But Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, took a different view. “Ultimately this is going to be a decision for the Irish and the Northern Irish,” he said. “The United States government’s going to have almost zero to do with it. We’ll just continue to watch it as curious observers from across the ocean.”