The Irish border has been a key fixture in the news in recent months due to the fact that Brexit negotiations have come to a standstill over the issue. In addition to its impact on Brexit, the Irish border issue also poses a threat to peace in Northern Ireland because it endangers the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the 1998 peace settlement that brought an end to a 30-year period of political violence between Nationalist and Unionist paramilitary groups, and British forces in Northern Ireland, also known as “the troubles,” which claimed over 3,500 lives.
During the peak of the troubles, from 1972-1998, the British government introduced direct rule over Northern Ireland, in which the regional government was suspended and replaced by a system of quasi-martial law. Policing and security powers were delegated to the British Army, and due process was removed from the criminal legal system: the British army introduced the widespread use of imprisonment without trial, and citizens were subject to frequent military checkpoints. This lead to an escalation of violence by paramilitary groups in the region and bombings became a near-daily occurrence.
The violence and oppression of the troubles were put to an end by the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, under which a cooperative system of governance, that equally represents the Nationalist and Unionist communities, was implemented. Northern Ireland has experienced relative peace ever since. Today, the troubles are a vestige of the past: Belfast, the capital city and a former epicentre of sectarian violence, has consistently placed as one of the UK’s top ten safest cities since 2008.
However, tensions between unionists and nationalists still run high. The regional assembly has been suspended for over a year due to the fact that political leaders from the two communities have been unable to form a coalition government, as required by the GFA, in the wake of the January 2017 parliamentary elections. This means that many local governance institutions have been suspended, and talk abounds of the re-implementation of direct rule.
These circumstances, coupled with uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit Irish border, has caused concern that the violence of the troubles may return. The implementation of a hard border, or one that is demarcated by heavy infrastructure and patrolled by officials, is perceived as a potential tipping point that could launch the region back into its violent past. Cross-border cooperation is a key feature of the Good Friday Agreement and has been made possible in large part as a result of the fact that EU Member states share open borders with one another.
Virtually every political party in Northern Ireland opposes the implementation of a hard border, but no practical solution has been offered that will allow the post-Brexit enforcement of different markets and immigration systems without one. Furthermore, the DUP, a unionist party, is the only political party with seats in Westminster, which means that there is good chance that any agreement reached could be rejected by the Nationalist community, who are currently without government representation. It is therefore crucial that a government agreement is reached and the devolved assembly is reinstated at Stormont so that the Nationalist community can have a voice in the negotiations.
The Irish border issue has deadlocked Brexit negotiations, and Northern Ireland hangs in a state of uncertainty as a result. One thing is certain, however: nobody wants Northern Ireland to return to violence after 20 years of peace.