The Good Friday Agreement as a Roadblock to Brexit

“The Good Friday agreement, which is to say, the entire Northern Irish peace process, complicates and even threatens Brexit. This being so, it is obvious that the fault lies with the Belfast agreement, not with Brexit, and if one of them must go, well, it is not difficult to discern which of them Brexiteers consider more important.”

Alex Massie The Times 20 Feb. Massie goes on to say

“According to the most recent Future of England survey, a joint initiative of the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, 81 per cent of Leave voters in England believe destabilising the Northern Irish peace process a price worth paying if that’s what Brexit requires. That’s quite something”. 

For an Irishman like me “that’s quite something” is an understatement and indeed I would go even further than the former Taoiseach John Bruton who described Brexit as an “Unfriendly act” in considering it a callous disregard of your nearest neighbour in the RoI and even some of their own citizens in NI. Even if a coherent case for Brexit could be made the Irish border problem would be sufficient to give me second thoughts.

A Very Brief History of Irish Independence

It might be worth going through a brief bit of Irish history and rewinding back towards the end of the 19th century. Ireland at that time was pushing hard for more devolved government within the UK, but was thoroughly committed to parliamentary and constitutional democracy. There was very little violence at the end of the 19th century, and devolution (Home Rule)  was driven by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), which culminated in the passing of the  3rd Home Rule Bill  in 1914. This gave a form of devolution to Ireland not too dissimilar to that enjoyed by Scotland today. The IPP was totally non sectarian and the leader John Redmond, who was a far greater man than many give him credit, adeptly maneuvered Parliament towards voting for Home Rule. At that time, however, the bill could be delayed by a maximum of two years by the House of Lords and the process was thus overtaken by the outbreak of the Great War.

There was a super-majority in Ireland at the time in favour of Home Rule, and whereas Redmond understood the English very well, he  completely underestimated the opposition of  the Ulster Unionists. They weaponized and propagandized the conflict in 1912 and threatened civil war, and with the Ulster Covenant and the forming of the UVF and in April 1914 they smuggled 25,000 rifles into Ulster. However, the Ulster Unionists equally did not understand the strength of feeling in the rest of Ireland towards Home Rule, the supporters of which were equally determined that the Unionists would not stop Home Rule and weaponised the issue in turn. Thus, had the Ulster Unionist been prepared to accept a fairly limited form of Home Rule the future might have been very different.

Matters initially spiraled out of control, but events were slowed by large numbers of Unionists and Nationalists fighting in the Great War. Positions were hardening on both sides with the 1916 Easter rising galvanizing opinion. The Irish Nationalists felt betrayed by Westminster which backed down from Home Rule in the face of Unionist military pressure and the perceived treachery of the Tory party. Support drained away from the IPP towards  Sinn Fein (SF), who wanted Irish Independence rather than devolution. By the time of the 1918 General Election (held unusually in December as the War did not end until November) SF was very much in the ascendancy. Fig. 1 shows the election results, with the IPP only retaining a few seats and SF obtaining an overwhelming victory. The contrast between the now NI and the rest of Ireland is stark, with the only Unionist candidates in the now Republic of Ireland being from Trinity College Dublin (TCD).


Fig. 1 Irish GE 1918 by result with 3 University constituencies Queen University Belfast (QUB), National University of Ireland (NUI) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD).


Even more startling perhaps is the share of the vote, with large areas giving a near 100% endorsement to Sinn Fein, particularly in Munster.


Fig. 2 Sinn Fein’s vote share 1918 GE Dec 2018


Determination on both sides was such that the parliamentary process was abandoned leading to the War of Independence, and the  signing of the treaty, most prominently by Michael Collins, which abandoned Northern Ireland, being an act of realpolitik.  On the signing of the treaty Lloyd-George reportedly said “I may have signed my political death warrant”  to which Collins replied “I may have signed my actual death warrant.” Many Nationalists – most prominently Éamon de Valera – were vitriolically opposed to Northern Ireland  breaking away and remaining part of the UK. An analogy which might be understood by English readers were if England had been invaded by Germany and, after a war of independence, a treaty was signed such that the six south eastern counties of England remained part of Germany.

The treaty lead to the Irish Civil War and Collins did indeed loose his life. The anti-treaty forces under de Valera proved triumphant and whereas Irish partition was a done deal, the  Irish Constitution (1937) under articles  2 and 3, never formally recognised the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. It was not until the Good Friday agreement that articles 2 and 3 were changed. Article 2 was changed to drop the clause

“The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.”

Article 3 dropped the clause

“Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstát Éireann and the like extra-territorial effect”

Northern Ireland and the Troubles

Northern Ireland was set up on the 3rd May 1921 as Protestant enclave. As Obelisk said on Slugger O’Toole

“It is a reflection of a mutilated polity that was explicitly carved outwith sectarian intent, and none of us have been able to or will ever be able to escape that original sin“.

Northern Ireland functioned reasonably well on formation, particularly as it was easily the richest part of Ireland, with about 80% of its industrial output. It was pretty much a statelet on its own, run by Stormont with little or no interference by Westminster in its internal affairs. Things were fairly ugly from the start, however, with the Belfast Pogroms of 1922 and suppression of the Irish language and culture. Proportional representation was rapidly abolished along with gerrymandering to ensure  near total protestant control. There was substantial discrimination in housing and employment. Indeed, it has been described as an apartheid state.

Things came to a head in 1968 with inspiration from the civil rights movement in the US and the Sorbonne. Many in the Catholic population, and some socially conscious Unionists, had had enough with the situation. As it is the 50th anniversary this year it is worth taking a little time looking back. Three prominent organizations were the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association (NICRA), the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) and the People’s Democracy (PD) based in Belfast and largely centered around QUB.

October the 5th 1968 is generally considered to the watershed date and the start of the troubles when a peaceful civil rights march organised by NICRA was attacked the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and the RUC ran riot later in Derry. A moving eyewitness account by Deirdre Ita O’Doherty is here, but here is an excerpt:

The Civil Rights march was banned by William Craig about 36 hours before. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk up Duke Street towards the front of the march, to see what the delay was.

I was astounded to see rows of RUC men in riot-gear about three deep, blocking the entrance to Craigavon Bridge. There was a loud debate going on between the Civil Rights leaders and the RUC, who refused to let the march proceed.

I stood for a few minutes as someone began to speak facing the crowd and appealing to the police. I then proceeded back to the end of the march, hoping to inform everyone what was happening.

I got no further than half way down Duke St, when the RUC literally ran amok and starting beating the marchers with their truncheons and drenching them with brownish forceful jets from water-cannon. Pandemonium broke out, as everyone ran down that Street, which in those days was like a tunnel, with no lanes or side streets to escape to safety.

They were followed by the RUC, who hit out at everyone, with no regard to gender or age. I even witnessed a young mother wheeling a baby in a pram being assaulted. They, the RUC, were aiming at skulls and upper bodies.

The memory of this still horrifies me. Had I been a bit older I could well have taken a bus up from Dublin to join in the protest.

Another date etched in history – 4th January 1969 – was during the “Long March” from Belfast to Derry modeled on the civil-rights march to Montgomery, Alabama by the PD. They were repeatedly attacked along the way by Loyalist gangs, but the ambush at Burntollet Bridge by Loyalists and off duty members of the RUC was of particular note, while officers of the RUC and B-Specials stood by and did not intervene. This was followed by rioting when the march arrived in Derry.

Things escalated later that year during the 12th August Apprentice Boys March, crescendoing in the 50 hour battle of the Bogside when Free Derry was declared and the British army sent in to keep the peace. A brief taste of the times is shown in the brief video clip below.

The troops were initially welcomed by the Catholic Community but relations rapidly deteriorated and the “troubles” began. Violence rapidly intensified. There is insufficient room in this article to do this period justice, but Fig. 3 gives an indication of the number of terrorist attacks in each of the four “nations” of the United Kingdom.  Of course the terror was not confined to the UK. In 1974, for instance, the Dublin and Monaghan Loyalist bombings which killed 33 people and was the deadliest attack of the entire troubles. The author had cycled past the Parnell St bomb, Dublin, 15 minutes before it exploded on the way home from UCD as an undergraduate.


Fig. 3 Terrorist Attacks by year from the Global Terrorism Database.

The Good Friday Agreement

Towards the end of the troubles there were sporadic ceasefires, and after two years of intense diplomatic effort spearhead by  Former US senator George Mitchel, and with highest level involvement from the UK, US, EU and Irish Government, the agreement was signed in Belfast on Good Friday 1998. The agreement was not perfect and here I follow the analysis by “Flip Chart Rick

At the root of the agreement are questions of history and national identity. Those from protestant backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as British and those from catholic backgrounds are more likely to see themselves as Irish. Matthew O’Toole summed it up neatly:

We might wish for a world in which more of Northern Ireland’s people shared a collective identity, but that is not is the world we live in. Nations are imagined communities, to use an old truism. The people of Northern Ireland have, over time, constructed separate psychological spaces for their identities. And part of the reason for enduring political instability is that neither monolithic identity can win. Both are inherently insecure.

People who feel Irish live in the island of Ireland, but not the state called Ireland. People who feel British live in the British state, but not on the island of Great Britain.

And, as he said, the Good Friday Agreement created a situation in which both were able to pretend. Northern Ireland remained legally part of the United Kingdom but the lack of a visible border meant that nationalists could imagine they lived in the same country as the people in the Republic.

The Good Friday agreement was elaborately engineered to reflect this. It not only instituted power-sharing, but created a legally enforceable right to identify as British, Irish or both. The agreement is fastidious in keeping Northern Ireland within the UK until a majority votes otherwise. But it is expansive when describing the right of people there to be part of the “Irish nation”. To make people who feel Irish relaxed about Ireland being partitioned as a matter of legal fact, the agreement sought to soften the border in people’s minds: to help them imagine it wasn’t there.

This softening of the border was enabled by the European Union and its single market. Once the single market had been implemented, there was no need for customs checks. With no customs checks, no security concerns and no immigration controls, people could cross the border as they pleased.

Threat to Peace

When the Good Friday agreement was signed there was no thought of Brexit, but if Brexit happens the NI border will become the external border of the EU. The Irish Government is absolutely committed to the GFA as an international treaty lodged with the UN and is determined to keep an open border at any cost – with full backing of the EU. An open border between NI and RoI might be solved by designating NI as a special economic zone and introducing border checks on the Irish Sea. The DUP are determined to stop this as anything which lessens the “Britishness” of NI is an anathema to them.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Interestingly Dublin port is getting ready for the extra custom checks anticipated for Irish Sea crossings. I suspect that no matter how stiff necked the NI Loyalists are they will not get things all their own way this time.


  1. Peter May -

    I’m of the opinion too that the GFA is the roadblock to Brexit.

    First, I don’t think Labour would be willing to imperil it – even if Blair was instrumental in its conclusion!

    Second, there is no majority for a hard Brexit in Parliament

    Third, the DUP want to retain an open border

    Fourth, the government is in power only as result of DUP support. So in the end the government does what the DUP says or loses office

    Fifth the Irish border is the EU/UK border under WTO rules so it’s the same border at Dover

    Sixth (well, it should be) isn’t Rees Mogg a Catholic? Isn’t their head office in Rome? What about sovereignty?

  2. Sean Danaher -

    I agree with most of your points and was amused by point six.

    Point three is the only one which I would have a major disagreement. Many in the DUP would welcome a border and the harder the better, whatever they say publicly. We had Sammy Wilson on the today program earlier today advocating the same technological solutions that have been totally discredited last summer. He also stated that 50% of Irish exports go to the UK where the real figure is about 15% (13.5% of goods and 16% of services) and seemed to think if push came to shove Ireland would back down and rejoin the UK economic area area, which is not going to happen. I’m sure he is loving his time with the right wing Tories of the ERG!

    On point four, I cant help but think May must be getting fed up with their intransigence but ultimately the EU is a far more powerful adversary than Ireland on its own but politics will be far from boring over the next few months.

    On point six one of the Unionist propaganda slogans was “Home Rule means Rome rule” so it would be rather ironic if Rees Mogg became PM.

  3. Pingback: The Good Friday Agreement: preserving peace in our time
  4. Peter May -

    If the DUP are lying about their desire for a border then they presumably think it is electorally advantageous so to do. Doesn’t that indicate that if they facilitated a hard border they think they’d get thrown out?

    I, too, heard that guff about half the Irish exports going to the UK and thought at the time that was not correct. As ever it was not picked up by the BBC interviewer – proving again that their primary skills rest not in their job of work but in negotiating large wages for themselves.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      The Irish export figures are roughly 50% EU26, 25% US, 15% UK and 10% rest of the world. Brexiteers consistently seem to use a 50% figure for Irish exports to the UK – I’ve heard this from a number of sources, they seem to live on a different planet to the rest of us. It is worrying that the BBC can’t pull people up when they clearly have their facts wrong.

      Sammy Wilson also said a hard border would hurt the RoI more than the UK, which is unlikely but possible.

      The DUP heartland is in the extreme NE of Northern Ireland Antrim and North Down well away from the border. Voting is very tribal in NI and they might loose a few seats but the worry for the DUP is more that if a hard border were introduced opinion polls lean towards a United Ireland. The DUP have an effective veto preventing a Border poll at present but it won’t last forever. The irony is that before Brexit there was little chance of a United Ireland within the next 25 years, now all bets are off.

  5. David Duffey -

    Using the GFA as a bargaining chip appears an implied threat that unless Brexit is abandoned, the bigoted, ugly thugs will resume their bombings.

    I realise you don’t like Brexit, but the people ‘voted’ for it in an advisory referendum 52-48% (quite different to how the polls reported it beforehand), Parliament voted 81-19% voted to delegate to the PM the power to issue the A50 notice. At the election in June, 80% of votes went to parties that promised to deliver Brexit.

    1. Sean Danaher -


      “Using the GFA as a bargaining chip appears an implied threat that unless Brexit is abandoned, the bigoted, ugly thugs will resume their bombings.”
      I think this totally missed the point and is a very naive analysis.

      You are correct in the fact that I don’t like Brexit. I think it will be a disaster for England; the worst decision since declaring War on the American Colonies. This caused a 30% loss in trade and it took two generations to recover good relations with the US. Some Scots liken it to the disastrous Darien Scheme. Having said that a hard Brexit could be very good for Ireland so I have mixed feelings.

      I expected Leave to win in June 2016 after the inept Remain campaign, but I thought we would end up in both the SM and CU as was consistent with the pro-Brexit campaign. Something like a Norway model was my anticipated outcome and is totally consistent with the referendum result.

    2. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

      “the bigoted, ugly thugs will resume their bombings…”

      “Bigoted ugly thugs’ as you so charmingly put it, David, in your BBC educated black and white world existed always ln both sides if every social divide ever.

      Where there is what we call terrorism these days there is always a history of bigoted ugly thuggism which it is a reaction to.

      The mess in Ireland was caused almost entirely in response to British thuggery over centuries. So don’t get sanctimonious – It doesn’t wash..

  6. Roger -

    Sean, just clicked through from Slugger. Well done on your own site.

    Article 2 of constitution of Ireland does not read as you quote here. That’s instead text from the Belfast Agreement that you quote.

    Northern Ireland was set up in 1921, not 1922.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. I know a number of Slugger readers visit this site but very few comment. I won’t have time to check today but thanks very much for pointing out any factual errors. As my Wife says “You can have your own opinions but can’t have your own facts.” I will hav a detailed look tomorrow and amend the article as appropriate

    2. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Roger thanks again. You are correct on both points and I have amended the article accordingly. Joys of using Wikipedia, I try to use original sources but there are time pressures! Regarding Slugger contributors I was hoping Seaan O’Neill might comment as he was heavily involved in the Civil rights movement with People’s Democracy.

  7. Graham -

    Many thanks for an illuminating article.

    While Googling for the 50% exports myth (it was in 1970) I came across an item in RTE based on a Finance Dept report from last year. There may be some worried people in certain sectors of Irish Exports. Maybe you’ve read it.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      you are right the 50% figure dates from about the time Ireland joined the EU. Indeed one of the main reasons for Ireland joining the EU was to reduce dependency on the UK.

      I not sure if I have seen the specific article but there are big worries in Ireland in that the large multinationals export largely to the EU and the US but many of the smaller companies and particularly in agribusiness are more UK export oriented and if I remember correctly something like 37% of exports in the agri-food sector go to the UK.

      The other big worry is that the poorer areas such as the border region will be worst affected.

      Ireland is also an export driven economy, more so than even Germany (per capita) so even 15% of exports is a big deal.

  8. Charles Adams -

    Excellent piece, Sean! Brilliant use of data and maps. The data on terrorist attacks is really shocking.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks. Indeed the hurt in NI is still in many ways an open wound on both sides of the community, given the level of violence and the fact the population is only about 1.8M. I think many people in mainland UK only took notice when there were bombings in England and were unaware of the level in NI itself.

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