Maine’s idea: Irish peace could have bizarre consequences

When traveling the world, for his law firm and as an informal global ambassador, George Mitchell often spoke of the commonalities he found in people of all continents, among all religions, nationalities and ethnicities.

Parents want the same things for their children, he said: a good education, health care, good jobs – and an absence of violence, in the community and the nation.

Mitchell had credibility as he negotiated, transpired and managed the Good Friday deal that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998, and ended the intermittent war that plagued an entire generation.

The Good Friday deal, which is expected to last at least as long as “The Troubles” that preceded it, has lasted beyond expectations.

Peace never seems to sell newspapers like wars and political conflicts, but perhaps more importantly – a point to remember in our own time of conflict.

Across the Atlantic, the peace in Northern Ireland has far more profound consequences than expected when it is signed by the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), led by John Hume, and the Party. Ulster Unionist (UUP), led by David Trimble.

The SDLP was the moderate Catholic, or Republican, party, while the UUP played the same role for Protestant Unionists.

Hume and Trimble shared the Nobel Peace Prize; Mitchell was inexplicably left out. Neither leader played a significant role in the coalition governments that followed.

Today, the largest Catholic party is Sinn Fein, once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), governing in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded by the torch Protestant Ian Paisley.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May and – unthinkable a generation ago – Sinn Fein could form the next government. Support for DUP has plunged.

The reason, in a nutshell, is Brexit – the curious decision by voters in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and Scotland and Wales) to sever ties with the Union. European Union (EU) in an almost simultaneous 2016 referendum with Donald Trump’s election.

Trump is not in power, but Boris Johnson, the Brexit “genius”, was apparently thriving as prime minister, chasing the opposition and leaving the once formidable Labor Party with rump status.

Johnson is a curious mix – an Oxford-educated curator at ease in the highest circles, but exhibiting a rowdy, savage appearance and ‘common man’ theatricality. Like Trump, he invents it as he goes.

Johnson is now in the throes of serious political problems, with two-thirds saying he should step down. These are – or seemingly – boozy parties in Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence and office, at the height of pandemic shutdowns.

The storm has grown and is the subject of a formal, but independent investigation, apparently a little less substantial than our January 6 committee.

What it really is, however, is Johnson’s Brexit mess, in which, despite its bluster, Europe holds all the cards.

Johnson made promises he couldn’t keep. Famous, the former journalist wrote two editorials ahead of the Brexit vote, one for ‘Remain’ and one for ‘Leave’ and then for ‘Leave’ as he seemed to be winning.

Initially, the Conservatives and Labor were straddling the issue that separated the two parties; Johnson became the decisive leader and won the 2019 parliamentary election.

Yet he was still trying to square the circle. The Good Friday Agreement specifies that there can be no customs border between the Republic of Ireland, comprising most of the island, and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

It’s enshrined in the EU charter, and Johnson knew he couldn’t change it. Yet he promised the DUP that somehow there would be no customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Brexit has gone ahead and goods that once moved freely across the Irish Sea are subject to inspections, fees and delays, hurting the economy.

Johnson charms English voters, but doesn’t deceive those in Northern Ireland, who rightly feel betrayed.

We are a long way from a resolution, but we can predict the day of another referendum – a referendum uniting Ireland, the north and the south, in the EU, saying goodbye to the UK. Already, demographic changes have made Catholics and Protestants equal in the North; the benefits of EU membership are tempting.

If that happens, the Scottish National Party could force another independence referendum. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against Brexit and could thus join the EU.

That would leave Boris Johnson’s successor with the United Kingdom of England and Wales, where it was in 1607, four centuries ago.

Americans sometimes aspire to the clear lines of British parliamentary government, as opposed to our own divided powers.

However, the election of Donald Trump may only have short-term consequences. Brexit could be much more sustainable.

Douglas Rooks, editor, commentator and journalist from Maine since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible”, is now available in paperback. He welcomes comments to[email protected]

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