The Belfast Agreement that went into force 20 years ago, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, ended the long, bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. Most parties supported the agreement. The people of Northern Ireland and of the Irish Republic approved it in two referenda, and its leading architects John Hume and David Trimble were awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize months after the signing.
The governments of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic signed the agreement, and both the Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and their Republican rivals pledged to implement it. The deal included disarming all militias within a few years, a commitment to ending the conflict by democratic means and establishment of an autonomous government in Belfast with equal representation of Catholics and Protestants. It also stipulated that the Legislative Council could only approve proposed laws with a Republican and a Unionist majority, and British sovereignty would be eased — for example, by disbanding the British army units in Northern Ireland. However, the Northern Irish autonomy would remain under UK sovereignty until residents vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic.
This temporary agreement with no end date in sight was probably convenient for all sides. It granted Northern Ireland a proto-state status with most of the characteristics of independence, and restored calm. By avoiding a final status decision, the sides prevented a renewal of the violent clashes between them.
I came away from talks I had in the past with the head of the autonomous government, First Minister David Trimble, and with others on both sides of the divide, with the impression that no one was in a hurry to reach a permanent agreement and that the interim deal was best for all. The agreement, to which then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair devoted much time and energy, was balanced down to the minutest detail, and the young leader was very pleased with his achievement. From him, too, I understood that everyone would be just fine with the interim status for a very long time.
There is no doubt that the membership of both the United Kingdom and Irish Republic in the European Union (EU) contributed greatly to the success of the agreement by avoiding the need to set a border between the Republic and the Northern Irish autonomy, and providing residents of the north with full and convenient access to both the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom.
Not that everything ran smoothly. Each side complained, of course, that the other was violating this or that article of the agreement. In light of the refusal of the paramilitary Northern Ireland’s IRA to abide by its commitment to disarm, the autonomous government stepped down and Northern Ireland was administered from London for several months. There were also occasional terror attacks carried out by radicals who refused to accept the 1998 compromises. However, the agreement was a success story by and large and most of it was implemented.
Then came the 2015 Brexit vote. Former Prime Minister of Great Britain David Cameron is to blame for instigating the Brexit crisis. Cameron feared that criticism over "the dictatorship" of the EU and its Brussels’ officials would damage his party’s chance to win the 2015 elections. And so, in order to avoid that criticism, he promised to hold a referendum about Great Britain staying in the EU. Cameron won the elections, but was stuck with the referendum promise. He expected the majority of Brits to support staying in the EU, but was defeated, at a terrible cost for his country.
For three ridiculous years since that unnecessary referendum, Theresa May — the home secretary under Cameron who opposed Brexit — served as prime minister. Three years that took a heavy toll on the country. In trying to agree on the terms of their divorce, the issue of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has proven to be one of the thorniest problems, if not the most problematic.
If the border would be established between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland — this is currently the official borderline between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom — it would mean that Northern Ireland would be outside of the EU. If the border would be established between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom (in the Irish Sea), and if Northern Ireland keeps obeying by the EU rules, then it’s a different situation. This would mean that, on the practical level, Northern Ireland would become part of the Irish Republic.
And if the Brits Brexit the EU? Even if, officially, Northern Ireland would not come under the sovereignty of the Irish Republic, the whole Irish island would become one entity, in spite of the referendum that was not conducted, as decided 20 years ago. The British Parliament rejected on March 12 a proposal for a temporary custom-border solution. Those objecting it argue that absent a long-term solution, the maritime frontier between the United Kingdom and the Irish island would become its border with the EU. Thus the United Kingdom would lose Northern Ireland.
Suddenly it appears that the decision to leave the most critical decision for a later stage and to drag out the interim agreement for over 20 years came at a cost. As long as there is no permanent arrangement, a changing and unpredictable reality could dictate decisions. What seemed convenient for all has now turned into a major headache for all, with Britain unable to find a way out of the stalemate in which it is trapped.
True, a referendum among residents of Northern Ireland on a final decision could have sparked renewed violence. However, it is safe to assume that those who have enjoyed the outcome of the Belfast Agreement over the past two decades and want to see calm maintained, would have accepted whatever the public decided.
The conflict between the Unionists and the Republicans bears many similarities to the Israeli-Palestinian one: A mixture of religious and nationalist aspects, a long history, use of violence, a sense of victimhood, the difficulty in recognizing the other as a terrorist or oppressor, and so on. There is also similarity in the deep reluctance to tackle the core issues of the conflict and resolve them. Residents of Northern Ireland could find their fate decided for them by a large degree by the EU rather than making a decision themselves on whether they should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic.
In Israel, unless we hurry and make a decision on dividing the land between ourselves and the Palestinians, reality will dictate a one-state solution of the type proposed in the past by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi who dubbed it “Isratine.” This state would have a Jewish minority ruling an Arab-Palestinian majority until that majority decides to put an end to its subservience. Before others decide for us, we would do well to make the tough decisions ourselves.
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