By Brian McGowan
I recently read “Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism” by Anthony McIntyre, who as a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) spent 17 years imprisoned in the notorious Long Kesh Prison.
McIntyre, incarcerated in his teens, raises some tough questions about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the 30-year-long “The Troubles” and brought a fragile peace to Northern Ireland. Brokered by the United States under President Bill Clinton, it was signed by two parties, then more diametrically opposed than any in the world.
Power in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom (U.K.), would be shared by the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein (Gaelic for Ourselves Alone) and their previously staunch opponents, the pro-British Unionists, who bitterly opposed any discussion of a united 32-county Irish nation. The agreement saw an end to a war in which thousands had died, and 10 IRA hunger strikers in 1981 led by Bobby Sands, who gave their lives for recognition as political prisoners, as opposed to common criminals.
McIntyre spent his time in prison well. He earned a college degree, and ultimately a doctorate, and went on to become one of Ireland’s most insightful commentators on the aftermath of The Troubles. The premise of his book is that too much was given up by the Sinn Fein leadership, ostensibly championing the long-held dream of a united Ireland, in exchange for some measure of political power and buy-in to the “establishment.”
In return, that leadership effectively abandoned the long-held dream of a united Ireland. Whatever one’s beliefs, the book is an intriguing window on the politics surrounding the Good Friday Agreement and the unheralded price paid for it.
Now, enter Brexit. A major topic at the recent G7 meeting, it elicited a pointed warning by President Joe Biden to British leader Boris Johnson that he had better work soon to prevent the reversal of the Good Friday Agreement in light of its impact on a critical flash point between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the 305-mile-long border between them.
That border, for more than two decades virtually unseen, was a major turning point during The Troubles. I crossed a section of it a year after the 1998 agreement was reached, and was told by locals if I had been there a year earlier, I’d have been detained for a day or two of questioning by British military wondering what I was up to.
But with the U.K. leaving the European Union (EU), that quiet border now becomes the only land border between the U.K. and the rest of Europe, a situation the EU insists must be addressed in order to perform customs checks and inspections.
One solution is to have a sea border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland and do inspections there. To Unionists, this is unacceptable, as it would force recognition that the six counties that they cherish are really more part of Ireland than the U.K. That could fracture the fragile peace the Good Friday Agreement brought, and bring a return to the years of sectarian fighting in which at least 3,500 perished.
In a perfect world, might not Brexit push Unionists toward a realization that a united 32-county Ireland be an acceptable outcome after all, in light of the benefits that continued membership in the EU would bring? Brexit threatens to render the U.K. a backwater as the EU pursues greater economic might.
A vote in neighboring Scotland to leave the U.K. might alter everything even further. While the last referendum on Scottish independence was narrowly defeated, that was pre-Brexit, which a large majority in both Scotland and Northern Ireland opposed.
Some envision a political union of Scotland and Ireland, both North and South, with a capital in either Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow or Edinburgh. Call the new nation the Republic of Dalriada, paying homage to just such a union that once existed long before the current fault lines of sectarian strife kept good people on both sides of the road from seeing past their noses.
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at email@example.com, or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.