While the UK parliament continues to tie itself in knots over how to exit the European Union, there’s a ticking time bomb that cannot be defused: the 98-year old problem of the forced separation of Ireland into an independent south and a UK-controlled north.
Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton and former US Sen. George Mitchell brokered a solution. The Good Friday Agreement brought a truce in the “Troubles” — sectarian violence that spread from the streets of Belfast to Dublin and London. The agreement guaranteed an open border between the two Irelands and fostered ever-closer ties among the Irish, with the free movement of people and goods serving the interests of people there and those across the Irish Sea in England.
But Brexit will pull Northern Ireland out of the EU along with the rest of the UK, and with the Republic of Ireland remaining, nobody knows what will happen at the border between the two, which will effectively become a physical boundary between the EU and a non-EU state. How will people and goods move across it?
The attempt to paper over this problem is threatening to blow up British Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to carry out the wishes of the English people who voted for Brexit. May and the EU have agreed on the need for a so-called backstop that will keep the Irish border open, but each side has a radically different understanding of how that would work.
Some doubt it can work at all. And there are no good options for the UK.
Either there will be a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, which will undercut the free movement of people and goods that has benefited both sides since the Good Friday Agreement. Or there will continue to be no border, which will mean that part of the UK will effectively remain in the European Union, and the rest will not.
This bitter fight threatens the continued existence of the United Kingdom itself. Majorities in both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales voted to leave. It’s far from the first time that the Irish and Scots have had their national aspirations overridden by the English, and Brexit has given renewed impetus to a potential second referendum for Scottish independence.
As Irish Americans who have been deeply involved in Irish affairs, who lobbied long and hard to convince President Clinton to appoint Sen. Mitchell as his representative in the peace talks, we watch with great concern as politicians in London consider policies that would upset the peaceful resolution reached by all sides two decades ago.
It was the political pressure applied through the likes of Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Kennedy that helped the deal get done, recently declassified British documents attest. They pushed the State Department to grant a US visa for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams — over officials’ objections in both London and the White House — for a visit that became a breakthrough moment that led to the Good Friday Agreement.
We are prepared to bring that same kind of pressure if a post-Brexit UK seeks a trade deal with the United States without keeping an open border between the two Irelands.
As it decides the fate of the Irish border, Britain must confront a new reality. Exiting the EU will necessitate a new trade deal with the United States, which must be approved by Congress — where incoming chairs of relevant committees include a number of Irish Americans and others with large Irish American constituencies.
You can expect an energized Irish American community will flex all of its political muscle to defeat any treaty that does not contain firm commitments to maintain the seamless flow of people and goods across the Irish frontier.
Irish American leaders have already held many meetings in Dublin and Belfast to prepare for the impact of Brexit. We cannot support the return of a hard border between the Republic and the North, just like we can never accept the return of the sectarian discrimination and bigotry that fueled the Troubles in the first place.
We Irish on both sides of the Atlantic have learned the hard way that history is a long march. And that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
Twenty years ago, London brought a massive lobbying effort to Washington in an attempt to stymie the peace process. It failed, and it was defeated by Irish American political muscle. As a group, our efforts — and those of many others — resulted in the tearing down of a border that divided the Irish people. London must be on notice that we will deploy every bit of our political strength to assure that that despised border will never be reestablished.
Brian O’Dwyer is an attorney and served as adviser to the Clinton White House during the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He is a longtime immigration activist who has been named Grand Marshal of the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York.