Britain’s Brexit identity crisis needs its own Good Friday Agreement
The twenty-year-old Northern Ireland peace deal dealt decisively with the issue of identity — the same issue now at the heart of Brexit
“It’s not about how long it takes a lorry to cross a border,” pleaded Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, on Newsnight recently, “The issue is identity.” Never, in an era of populism, was a truer sentence said.
And Powell should know. As chief negotiator for one of the great diplomatic successes in twentieth-century history it is telling that, although he was talking about the Good Friday Agreement, he could equally have been diagnosing Brexit. It is ironic that this agreement, once lauded as a model of compromise is now viewed by some as an obstacle to a ‘proper’ Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement continues to be a rare and successful thing. It represents a commitment to the continuous democratic agreement of solutions to problems. Hardened attitudes were laid bare on the negotiating table, not given a hope. But through compromise, a resolution was found. And slowly, too slowly, life in Northern Ireland showed signs of becoming normal again. How we might wish now for a similar outcome to Brexit.
This is not to play down The Troubles or equate it to Boris Johnson waving smoked fish onstage. The Troubles saw decades of violence, pain and death. So all the more reason to learn from what stopped it.
What Powell was talking about was the central tenet of the peace process. It was agreed that that citizens in Northern Ireland, whatever their community, could identify as British or Irish or Both. And this issue of identity, along with others, would thereafter be treated through new and reformed institutions of power-sharing.
And in this pluralistic and democratic clearing, the circling planes of sectarianism were, over time, encouraged to land allowing people to live a life grounded in shared responses to shared problems. Events in Northern Ireland since show that not everything is solved. But it was the Good Friday Agreement that lit a way home when all seemed hopeless.
The UK government should be looking to this page of its own history as a blueprint to Brexit, not as an obstacle. The question of Brexit is also fundamentally about identity. It isn’t economic, as David Cameron discovered to his cost. It’s about identity in the high street, on the passport, in the pub, on the ballot paper, in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Benidorm and England.
Identity in the UK since 1707 has been asymmetrical to look at, unequal in the pocket and difficult to explain. Yet Brexit could mark a sort of ‘zero-hour’ in the country where, like in Northern Ireland, old certainties need a rethink. Britain is now divided between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, two labels more important than your political party, religion, your father’s occupation or whether you went to university. If British politics is to be at peace once more then its people will need confidence they can have single or multiple identities, and that these identities will be represented; where you can, for example, be English, European or Both.
British democratic institutions are very rarely changed. Yet the causes and consequences of Brexit all point to a need for renewal in political and civic life. In this spirit, the UK should not, in its desperation, attempt to unpick its old handiwork but accept a second Good Friday Agreement is needed, this time for itself. Such action would ensure Brexit does not mutate into a longer period of decay, where obvious social divides merely deepen and widen.