UK premier’s desire to revive N.Ireland border posts spurns Good Friday Agreement, seen as model to settle Kashmir issue
ANKARA ( Anadolu Agency) Soon after taking office, new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw down the gauntlet, calling for total abolition of the Irish border backstop, which would effectively reverse the commitments of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that paved the way for resolution of the Northern Ireland issue and 700-year British-Irish conflict.
In the early 1990s, as the Cold War ended and the European Community was changing its name to the European Union, European countries raced to settle territorial disputes involving Tyrol (Italy and Austria), Trieste (Italy and the former Yugoslavia), and Andorra (France and Spain), among others.
But the bloodiest among them, the Northern Ireland conflict, which saw at least 10,000 bomb attacks in two decades starting in 1968, was settled after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the governments of the U.K., Republic of Ireland, and political parties representing Northern Ireland.
But Johnson’s call for re-erecting borders with all the paraphernalia of customs and checkpoints between the British territory of Northern Ireland and the neighboring Republic of Ireland has thrown the longstanding agreement into a tailspin.
The pact was sold worldwide by the West as a model to resolve other conflicts, mostly the issue of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, advised an Indian audience on March 2, 2003 to take a cue from the Northern Ireland agreement in settling the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.
The central pillar of the agreement was based on the principle of adopting a people-centric rather than territory-centric approach, meaning there would be no exchange of territories or sovereignties, but the territory in dispute would be guaranteed self-rule, demilitarization and free movement of people and materials across borders with no border posts and customs.
Johnson, while committing to leaving the EU on Oct. 31 this year with or without a deal, called for the total abolition of the backstop.
“No country that values its independence and indeed its self-respect could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does,” Johnson told the House of Commons.
According to John Doyle, executive dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Dublin City University, the U.K.’s flexibility in opening frontiers and restoring linkages between the divided Irish communities was crucial in getting the consent of Irish nationalists to the agreement.
“For nationalists, it represented a recognition of their political sovereignty, but in a manner acceptable to the U.K,” he said.
Documents suggest that it was Clinton’s active and supportive involvement in the process which led to the agreement. The U.S. visas for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader Joe Cahill were crucial confidence-building measures in the runup to the ceasefire.
The analogy between Northern Ireland and Jammu and Kashmir is that the Protestants opposed to secession were backed by the U.K. and the Catholics who fought a bloody war under the IRA banner had the tacit support of the Republic of Ireland, which was harboring a desire for a greater Irish nation. Even 20 years after the accord, the two communities stand apart, having separate schools, separate housing, separate clubs, separate cultural activities and in fact everything separate. The distrust is so deep that the city cemetery is divided and the wall goes deep underground to prevent even the dead of the two communities from “meeting each other”.
But, there are visible signs of peace as well. Satish Kumar, an Indian-origin teacher at the world famous Queen’s University in Belfast, recalled that the region used to be full of uncertainties. The sight of battle-geared British troopers hunting IRA commandos on the roads of Belfast, bomb blasts and encounters were features of daily life.
“Not a single policeman is now visible anywhere in market places. The peace has allowed business and real estate to thrive,” he said, adding midnight knocks and searches were common and it was not easy to move around in the evening.
A 2009 TV series on the deadliest warriors aired on the Discovery Channel which compared the IRA and the Taliban in Afghanistan deemed the former more lethal in terms of access to weaponry and tactics.
The city of Belfast boasts the Europa Hotel, the most bombed hotel in the world, which was targeted 27 times. Irish journalists would say its gate was repeatedly targeted to make headlines as the hotel used to host most visiting journalists.
According to Kumar, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and later the 2007 St. Andrew Agreement gave warring factions a sense of victory. While the former agreement was signed between the governments of the U.K. and Republic of Ireland, the latter was signed between the warring factions of Sinn Fein (political arm of the IRA) and the extremist Protestants’ Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a power-sharing executive.
The Good Friday Agreement also brought an end to the 700-year-old British-Irish conflict which had climaxed in 1916 with the Easter uprising in Dublin. It sparked a chain of events and finally divided the region, forming a separate country of the Republic of Ireland in the south with 26 counties while six counties in the north were merged with the U.K. The northern territory, with its population of 2 million, remained in a state of unrest where 45% of the minority Catholics called ‘nationalists’ continued fighting for a merger with the Republic of Ireland. The majority 55% Protestants (Unionists), who were seen as outsiders and settlers, favored a complete merger with the U.K.
As part of the peace process, militants on either side were asked to disarm. Unlike in India, the important aspect of the disarming of militants was that Britain never insisted that they lay down their arms in public. Neither had they put it a condition to carry forward negotiations. An international commission was later set up led by a Canadian general to monitor the decommissioning of arms.
Musharraf’s Kashmir formula and Northern Ireland peace process
According to the agreement, the Irish government also gave up its claim to Northern Ireland. While the region was allowed to remain part of the U.K., the agreement allowed the right to secession, stipulating that the wish of secession expressed by a majority would be respected. It also created an interlocking relationship between Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland, establishing a British-Irish intergovernmental conference to promote bilateral cooperation and a North-South Ministerial Conference in which members of the Northern Ireland executive and Irish government oversee cross-border cooperation. Also, the residents of Northern Ireland were allowed to keep dual nationalities, having both Irish and British passports.
This agreement did not make it mandatory for the new members of Northern Ireland legislative assembly to take an oath of allegiance to British sovereignty or to begin assembly sessions with the British anthem of “Long Live the Queen”.
Author and legal luminary A.G. Noorani believes that a turning point in the Irish conflict came in 1990, when Peter Brooke, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.
“Our role is to help, enable and encourage Britain’s purpose. It is not to occupy, oppress or exploit but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice,” he said.
His statement opened doors for the militant IRA to participate in the negotiations.
Experts in India and Pakistan maintain that much of the so-called “formula” of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for settling the issue of Kashmir was based on the Good Friday Agreement. Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who was foreign minister of Pakistan under Musharraf, admitted that lessons were drawn from the Northern Ireland peace process while sketching a solution for the Kashmir issue. He said then-Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Tariq Aziz and Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan held over 200 hours of discussions with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy Satinder Lamba from 2003-2008.
Contours of proposed Kashmir settlement
Kasuri said Indian and Pakistani interlocutors held over 30 meetings in Dubai and Kathmandu to formulate a nine-point plan somewhat similar to the Good Friday Agreement.
The nine-point formula was 1. Reducing violence by controlling cross-border movements of militants and dismantling terror infrastructure. 2. Demilitarization by reducing the military footprint on both sides starting with the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas. 3. Self-governance by strengthening Article 370 (special provision in Indian Constitution) and identical measures of self-governance on the Pakistani side. 4. Holding free and fair elections open to the scrutiny of international observers and the media on both sides. 5. Allowing both countries to hold administrative control of one or two regions to address Pakistan’s obsession with the Gilgit-Baltistan part of Kashmir, its gateway to China. 6. Constituting a joint body of elected government-nominated representatives to monitor cross Line of Control (LoC) trade, tours, travel etc. 7. Evolving common policies in development and water resources. 8. Setting up a monitoring process by allowing the foreign ministers of the two countries to meet annually for monitoring the progress of the agreement, which was to be reviewed after 15 years. 9. Signing a treaty of peace, security and friendship after addressing outstanding issues in order to give the countries a stake in each other’s economic development.
Lamba said Manmohan Singh had mandated him to work for making the boundary irrelevant, to enable commerce, communication, contacts and development of the Kashmiri people on both sides, and to end the cycle of violence without redrawing the map or exchanging sovereignty.
Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who was instrumental in forging the 1998 agreement, has warned that any backtracking from the deal could spark a return of violence in Northern Ireland. He said a hard Brexit, which would lead to customs posts on the border, is in no one’s interest.
“A hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be harmful to both,” he told The Irish News, a Belfast-based newspaper.
Noorani, who has written extensively on the peace processes in Northern Ireland and Kashmir, also believes that the current British attitude would reverse all the gains and would put a question mark on the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. It would also harm the cause of those who have been attempting to project it as a model for the resolution of other disputes.
Like the current dialogue going on between the U.S. and the Taliban to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Northern Ireland process had long ago told the world an important lesson that while governments can cohabit with moderates and engage them in discussions, ultimately only the extremists make the agreements stick. The only problem with governments and people the world over is that their memory is short-lived and they tend to repeat treading beaten paths and start redrawing the circle anew.