Tuesday 21. September 2021
#211 - January 2018

Brexit and the Irish border: A cry from the heart of an Irish Jesuit

Closure of the Irish border amounts to a unilateral revocation of the Good Friday Agreement and undermines a central European value of respect for international accords, argues Edmond Grace SJ. 

After a Brexit, the UK would have three land borders with the EU: Cyprus, Gibraltar and Ireland. The terms of a post-Brexit border with the Republic of Ireland are the subject of ongoing negotiations. There is serious concern that the hard-won achievements of the “Good Friday” peace agreement which led to near-invisible border with Southern Ireland, will be undone.


On the day the Schengen agreement came into effect the Polish elder statesman, Bronislaw Geremek, got into his car in Warsaw and drove across the frontier into Germany for the sheer joy of doing so, without being stopped at a check-point. Given the state of current Brexit negotiations, many in Ireland can resonate with Geremek’s enthusiasm. When the internal European market which came into effect on 1 January 1993 Ireland’s border became for all practical purposes invisible. Now all is in suspense.


The importance of the EU for the peace process

The shadow of ‘the troubles’ was still around but, five years later, in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement would finally bring peace to Ireland. In the Preamble to the Agreement, the British and Irish governments declared themselves willing, ‘to develop still further… the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.’ The lifting of border controls was the most obvious sign of the benefits of that partnership for the Northern Irish peace process.


The Agreement was a legally binding international treaty but, to give it added political legitimacy, it was submitted to the electorates in both parts of the island for endorsement. This was duly given and, in line with the Agreement, two councils were set up – one North/South and one British-Irish. Both were explicitly mandated to deal with EU affairs.

Since then cross border Economy has flourished and the fact that people are meeting in a business context - and getting to know and trust each other - has a value which goes far beyond economics. John Hume, the chief architect of the Good Friday Agreement, had this kind of development in mind when he first spoke of ‘sharing the island.’


His ideas were inspired by the European project and its vision of building peace and solidarity through the free movement of people and goods. The Good Friday Agreement was inspired by Europe and Europe has played a key role in its implementation. This may partly explain the emphatic support which Ireland has received from the European Union, but there is a second more fundamental issue at work.


Pragmatism and Britain’s isolationism

Europe is founded on international treaties and on respect for the legally binding commitments to which they give rise. The EU cannot allow itself to be complicit in a unilateral revoking of a treaty which is of fundamental importance to the interests - and Constitution - of one of its Member States.


Britain has, by contrast, traditionally prided itself on being pragmatic and its mysterious unwritten constitution facilitates this kind of thinking. When the Brexit debate was at its height, there was no talk of Ireland or of the commitments arising out of a treaty which spoke of Ireland and Britain as ‘partners in the European Union.’ It simply did not figure.

When the British electorate voted for Brexit, most members of the Westminster parliament were unhappy with this outcome. Yet, instead of calling on the electorate to reconsider (as Ireland’s National Parliament has done twice with success) they decided that the status of the referendum had mysteriously changed.


The sovereignty of parliament has always been a fundamental tenet of the British Constitution, which is why British referenda were seen as advisory; decision-making was for parliament alone. This changed with Brexit. With a narrow 52:48 majority, and with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting against, it was suddenly accepted by both Labour and Conservative parties that this referendum could not even be challenged by parliament.

This fundamental change to Britain’s unwritten constitution has not been acknowledged as such either by parliament or government. All we can know for sure is that British politicians behave as if it has happened. One possible – and pragmatic - explanation is that no one is willing to take on that embedded sense of superiority and separateness which is so much a part of English culture.


Recent deals struck between Britain and the EU are not a definitive resolution of the issues. Contradictions remain and, with them, the trial of strength between British separatism and European values. It is worth recalling the prophetic words of Jean Monnet first spoken in 1950 and later recorded in his memoirs: The British will not find their future role by themselves. Only outside pressure will induce them to accept change.


Edmond Grace SJ

Author of ‘Europe’s problem with England


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.