HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland — In 1998, two jagged, conflicting philosophies agreed to end the violence known as the Troubles and create a power-sharing government in Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.
The Good Friday Agreement was a tortuous thing to wrangle. A host of individuals — some on the world stage, others forever anonymous — took meetings in living rooms and shadowy fields. People prayed in churches of all denominations. It failed and failed and failed until it didn’t.
To say there were compromises is one of those instances of the English language having scant resemblance to reality. People in prison for murder were freed. More than 1,000 murders were left unsolved. People on all sides kicked some hopes down the road and gave up on others completely. Everybody sewed up their wounds, believing in an eventual healed scar.
On Tuesday, President Biden will arrive in Northern Ireland to mark the anniversary of the agreement. He will spend about a day here — the rest of the week he’ll be in the Republic of Ireland — and excitement is high. Photos of the president’s security vehicles arriving at Belfast International Airport were in the newspapers, and videos of the motorcade have swept our landscape into scenes we usually only see in the movies. The following week, the Clintons are coming.
The mood should be celebratory, and it is. But perhaps the arrival of these public figures is as much about reassurance as it is about toasting a job well done.
I am part of a generation that as children thought bomb scares and military patrols were normal. For 25 years there has largely been an absence of war, and we’ve never taken it for granted. But I think we have the mistaken impression here that that absence is peace. If only it were peace, we’d all be fine. But it’s not.
Stormont has been inactive for almost a year because one of the main parties has refused to take its seats; the terrorism threat level was recently raised to “severe” after an off-duty police officer was shot. The shooting was claimed by a dissident republican group called the New I.R.A. and paramilitaries are estimated to still have thousands of members operating like organized crime gangs and doling out what are colloquially known as “punishment beatings,” like bullets through kneecaps.
Peace in Northern Ireland is a matchstick tower, and recently there has been a shifting of the ground below.
One of the central tenets of the agreement was that the border between Northern Ireland — or the North of Ireland, depending on your political persuasion — and the Republic of Ireland would no longer be a hard border. What we mean by a “hard border” here can be characterized by its opposite — today, I only really notice I’ve crossed it because the road signs change from miles to kilometers and my phone beeps to tell me that I’ve changed countries. But throughout my childhood I crossed a hard border at least eight times a year to visit family in the south, in Cork. Back then there were watchtowers and helicopters, the northern side was patrolled by the British army and soldiers with machine guns checked our passports. People have told me that they always felt like the air on the border was taut; everyone was very aware of what a wrong word and a hair trigger could do.
When the border was dismantled as part of the peace process, there was a sense that a bulwark against collectivism had been demolished. And since both north and south were part of the European Union, it even made good geopolitical sense.
Being part of the E.U. did something metaphysical, too: Citizens of Northern Ireland could then and can still choose to hold British or Irish passports, or both. But we were also all European, and our passports bore the little circle of stars that represented the E.U. We could all formalize our national identity as we saw fit and remain part of something international.
But then England, Scotland and Wales left the E.U. and all the people in Northern Ireland who held British passports exited with them, while those who held Irish passports remained European. Nobody moved a muscle.
Northern Ireland did not collapse into chaos overnight, but something deeper was afoot. Insecurities about identity that had been slumbering started to wake.
To avoid a hard border with the Republic, a post-Brexit trade agreement called the Northern Ireland Protocol allowed the north to, in effect, stay in the European single market for goods. This endowed certain advantages on businesses here that trade with Europe, but it also meant that some goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain would be subject to customs checks.
Unionists were spooked to see Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the U.K. Quickly — we love a political sign here — posters declaring “NO BORDER IN THE IRISH SEA” appeared on lampposts. To some that statement is magical thinking, since the sea itself is an immutable border. But Unionists, especially members of the Democratic Unionist Party, feared that every form stamped would erode British identity; each one a de facto declaration that Northern Ireland is separate.
In an election last May, about a year after the protocol came into effect, Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party, became the largest party in Stormont for the first time in the 100-year history of Northern Ireland. Members of the D.U.P., the second largest, refused to take their seats until the British government renegotiated the protocol. (They were able to do this because, per the Good Friday Agreement, government cannot sit in Stormont without both parties present.) Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, negotiated a new arrangement with the E.U. in February that simplifies the customs arrangements but leaves some E.U. law in place in Northern Ireland. The D.U.P. said it still wasn’t good enough. The British government’s position, more or less, is that it’s the best they’re getting.
Civil servants kept the lights on, as they did between 2017 and 2020, when Stormont collapsed over a domestic scandal. But a budget for Northern Ireland was not agreed for 2022-23 and the deficit is ballooning, and payments to help with high energy bills over winter were delayed.
The unfolding of Brexit has elucidated several facts long suspected, one of which is that the British government is not overly concerned about us. But it’s remarkable to me that citizens who took part in a democratic election have almost silently allowed the absence of government to take place. There have been articles, tweets and grumbling, but notably few demonstrations.
As long as there is peace, this absence of dissent seems to say, anything is better than the Troubles.
There are exceptions. The controversial Northern Ireland Legacy Bill introduced by the British government in May 2022 would grant amnesty to perpetrators of the unsolved murders of the Troubles. This is one rare thing in the north that united all the major political parties in opposition and brought people out into the street in protest. At least we are talking about some of the silences that smother democracy.
This month we remember that a version of peace was gifted to us by a brittle matchstick tower constructed a quarter of a century ago. We can celebrate that, but we need to tend to it, too.
Clare Dwyer Hogg is a playwright, poet and journalist who lives in Northern Ireland.
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