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Will the Good Friday Agreement Survive the G7?

Sonja Dobson, G7 Research Group
June 13, 2021

Northern Ireland has become a topic of contention at the G7 summit hosted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been significant turbulence between Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and most other G7 members. With UK's exit from the European Union, the GFA will be harmed if the puzzle of the United Kingdom customs territory and the European Union's single market is not solved. The United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union are aiming for an agreement to be made before July 11 "when currently suspended tariffs will come back into force on all sides."

The White House has stated that "President Biden has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the foundation for peaceful co-existence in Northern Ireland." This is no surprise, as President Biden has Irish heritage. As well, he has worked hard to contribute to the peace of Northern Ireland. It seems that, for G7 members other than the United Kingdom, ensuring the integrity and sustainability of the GFA holds significant value. Only once the Cornwall communiqué is released will it be clear whether the instability in Northern Ireland was sufficiently significant for the G7 to commit to finding solutions to that particular problem.

Brexit was voted for by mainly England's residents. Northern Ireland residents did not overwhelmingly vote to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland is closely connected to its southern neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. The Troubles that led to the GFA were born out of conflict between the southern Irish and Catholic citizens who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland and the Northern British and Protestant citizens who wished for Northern Ireland to remain joined to the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are closely connected yet separate on their own small island.

The Northern Ireland conflict lasted for several decades before culminating in the GFA on April 10, 1998. That date is where the name came from: it was Good Friday. The GFA resulted in the Northern Ireland Assembly, close cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and close cooperation between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. During the conflict-ridden decades, unlike in the Republic of Ireland, guards with guns were stationed around Northern Ireland. At one point in the late 1970s, guards shot dead a couple who were driving from Belfast to Dublin because they had failed to stop at a check point. There were bombings all over Northern Ireland and thousands were killed before the GFA. Northern Ireland was extremely unsafe for both those who claimed to be Irish and those who claimed to be British.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are not to be taken lightly, nor should the years that have followed them. In 2002, following the GFA, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended for five years because the Democratic Unionist Party refused to be in government alongside Sinn Fein due to suspicions of the latter party being involved in invoking violence in the country. In early 2017, Sinn Fein withdrew from the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland was without a government from that time until early 2020, when the government finally reformed between Sin Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. Between 2017 and 2020, when Brexit was being negotiated, Northern Ireland did not have a government and, as such, did not have much of a say.  In 2019, the violence in Northern Ireland once again resulted in a car bomb, which killed a journalist.

Issues in Northern Ireland have been around for a long time. However, there have been renewed problems due to Brexit. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has taken centre stage as the GFA stipulates close cooperation between the two countries. When one drives from one to the other in the present day, there are no indications that you have crossed into another country, bar the change in speed signs. With Brexit, that invisible border has the potential to become more concrete, which would devastate to the Irish, Northern Irish and British economies.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has viewed the Northern Ireland topic as not as integral to the global agenda, many other G7 members have felt otherwise. A consensus on the Northern Ireland topic of the GFA does not need frontrunner status at the G7, but it does need an agreement.

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