The Strange Politics of Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Image by H. Hach.

When I was a boy, Northern Ireland was listed alongside the Holy Land, Afghanistan, and Kashmir as one of those places doomed to always be a war zone, fought over for so long that multiple generations grew up only knowing conflict, religious tensions between the combatants ensuring there was no hope of peace. Then, on Good Friday, 1998, a miracle happened: a peace agreement was reached that paved the way for the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Of course, one doesn’t simply stop fighting after decades of war, and the peace agreement had to be amended and supplemented by another one in 2006. Yet, today, peace has been brought to the northern part of the Emerald Isle, a testament to hope and to the inherent goodness of humanity overcoming the darkest aspects of our nature.

That makes me wonder, though: what was in those peace agreements? What, exactly, did they agree to that convinced them to lay down their arms?

Growing up, I always heard that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a religious one between Catholics and Protestants. This was always how the conflict was portrayed by the news media and described to me in school. However, that is a misrepresentation of the Troubles, as the conflict is euphemistically known today. Sure, religion may have played a role in escalating the conflict and making peace more difficult, the fact is that this was a conflict over sovereignty, identity, and, in essence, whose land this was.

To be fair, war over ownership of the land was far from new to the region.

In 1801, centuries of de facto British rule in Ireland were formalized with an Act of Union that officially merged the island with England, Scotland, and Wales to form the United Kingdom. After World War I, Irish resistance and rebellion against British rule led to the adoption of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, in which Ireland won its independence. However, six northern counties within the Irish province of Ulster – Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone – voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, which officially changed its name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For its part, the newly independent nation of Ireland rejected the continued British rule of Northern Ireland and laid claim to the entire island. As for the people who lived in Northern Ireland, most Catholics saw themselves as Irish and wanted the British to leave their island, while most Protestants saw themselves as British and supported maintaining the union with Great Britain.

The Good Friday Agreement got around this dispute in a clever way – the UK and Ireland both agreed to accept the status quo for now, until such time as a majority of Northern Irish voters ever approves a future referendum to unite with the rest of Ireland, at which time both the UK and Ireland would accept such a hypothetical vote. This way, the UK and loyalist Protestants could claim they “won” and maintained the union with Britain, while Ireland and the Northern Irish Catholics could claim they “won” a chance to achieve their goal of reunifying the island peacefully.

Of course, there is far more to it than that, or else this wouldn’t be a Strange Politics post, would it?

If you live in Northern Ireland today, you can choose to be a British citizen, an Irish citizen, or both. You can also vote in elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislature that has power to pass laws on most day-to-day political matters affecting the people in Northern Ireland, much like the legislature of a U.S. state. Elections in Northern Ireland are nothing like American elections, however. When Northern Irish voters go to the polls, the ballots they are handed show a list of candidates that they are asked to rank from their most preferred choice to least preferred choice, marking a rank by each name (1, 2, 3, etc.). Each candidate is not only assigned a political party affiliation, but also a “designation” as a Unionist (meaning pro-UK), Nationalist (pro-Ireland), or Other. When these ballots are counted, the five candidates from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 “electoral constituencies” who get the most higher-ranked votes are given Assembly seats. This system is intended to ensure that the proportion of Unionists and Nationalists in the Assembly match, as closely as possible, the proportion of Northern Irish people who support each position.

The strangeness doesn’t stop with the Assembly’s election, either. When voting on the budget and a handful of other matters, a simple majority vote of the Assembly’s members is insufficient; the vote must have “cross-community support”, defined as either:

  1. 50% of all members, including 50% of Unionists, and 50% of Nationalists, or
  2. 60% of all members, with at least 40% of Unionists and at least 40% of Nationalists.

Both the United Kingdom and Ireland have a parliamentary system of government, where the executive branch is made of ministers chosen from among the members of the legislature. The Northern Ireland Executive is likewise made of Assembly members, but unlike its British or Irish counterparts, its membership is determined by a mathematical formula that forces all the major political parties into a power-sharing deal. In this way, both factions always have some say in Northern Ireland’s politics.

Are you with me so far? Good, because everything we have talked about so far is just one “strand” of the Good Friday Agreement.

Yes, the text of the peace agreement refers to its provisions as “strands”

Another strand of the Agreement lays the foundation for the creation of so-called “North-South” bodies made of representatives from both the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Irish government that exercise political power and authority over certain areas deemed to be of importance for the entire island of Ireland to cooperate on, such as inland waterways, food safety, preservation of the Irish language, and tourism. So, in that sense, the island has been reunified, at least in that handful of policy areas.

A third strand of the Agreement creates a system for permanent structured cooperation between the UK and Ireland on various topics that are deemed to be of “common concern” to everyone in the British Isles, such as transportation or the environment.

In a way, the Good Friday Agreement is quite remarkable, in that it makes Northern Ireland effectively a bi-national zone. A huge part of why this was possible is the fact that both the UK and Ireland were part of the European Union, a multinational federation that unites most of the European continent into a common political regime with freedom of movement of people and goods between its member countries. At least, the UK and Ireland used to both be part of the EU. Then Brexit happened.

The decision by the British voting public to leave the EU was largely motivated by a desire to regain full independence and sovereignty from European control, including the right to control its own borders once again. However, this created a conundrum in Northern Ireland, as this would mean enforcing a hard border between it and the rest of Ireland, something that both the government of Ireland and the pro-Ireland population within Northern Ireland would absolutely reject. In the interest of not starting a Troubles II, the highly-controversial Northern Ireland protocol was agreed as part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU.

If the UK is outside the EU with full control over its own trade and its own laws, but there is also no hard land border between the UK and Ireland, what’s to stop clever companies from shipping goods bound for Europe through the UK first, using Northern Ireland as a way to avoid paying EU tariffs or complying with EU consumer safety laws? The protocol addresses this concern by creating a system of customs and border checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That’s right, the UK now has created border checks within its own borders, effectively treating Northern Ireland sort-of like foreign soil. Not only has this disrupted the flow of goods to Northern Ireland and created empty supermarket shelves there, it has enraged the pro-UK loyalists there.

While the political drama over the Northern Ireland protocol remains ongoing as of this writing, I think it’s worthy of stepping back and recognizing just how remarkable the Good Friday Agreement is. It’s a testament to the power of compromise and how people who are committed to find a peaceful solution to their disagreement can come to an agreement, even if it means accepting some Strange Politics.