By Jane Morrice
The 27 EU Heads of State have called for “flexible and imaginative solutions” to accommodate the “unique circumstances on the island of Ireland” in the forthcoming EU/UK negotiations. At their Summit in April, they reaffirmed their support for “the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (the Northern Irish peace deal)” and their intention to “protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process” as a matter of “paramount importance.”* Granting Northern Ireland “Honorary EU Membership” as a ‘European Place of Global Peace-Building’ is a flexible and imaginative proposal which, with the backing of London, Dublin, Belfast and Brussels, could provide the solution.
Honorary EU Membership would protect the peace process by avoiding a hard border and allowing Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and part of the EU in keeping with the consent principle of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). It would allow citizens of Northern Ireland to remain European and retain their rights and it would ensure continued support for peace and prosperity in the region. Those who think Brexit is bad for Britain, Ireland and Europe, believe it will be worse for Northern Ireland. But sorry situations can produce creative opportunities. March 2017, which saw the London attack, the anniversary of the Brussels bombs, Article 50 triggered and the collapse of the NI Assembly, sharpens our resolve. Honorary EU membership would not only protect the peace process and counter any negative impact of Brexit but also promote peace worldwide by making Northern Ireland the launch-pad of a new EU-led global peace-building initiative,
The EU Summit agreement to permit NI to return to the EU if there is consent to a United Ireland has been described as a useful ‘housekeeping’ exercise. However, in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, it might also be appropriate to recognise the will of the majority in NI to remain in the EU and in the UK. Honorary EU Membership would do that and would avoid further destabilising the delicately balanced NI political institutions by maintaining the status quo but only if the request is put by the UK and Ireland at the behest of the Northern Ireland Assembly/Executive. The current ‘talks process’ offers yet another opportunity to agree a common position on this issue. It would exceptionally give NI the right to retain the benefits of EU membership and maintain an open border, while remaining part of the UK. In keeping with the Agreement, which affords NI citizens the right to be British and Irish, therefore European, it would defend citizens rights and protect the peace process by ensuring continued EU support for peace and prosperity as well as joint UK/Ireland cooperation to that end. It would also allow NI to share its peace and reconciliation experience with the rest of the world.
European citizens are said to be searching for ‘a reason to believe’ in the EU. When European Commission President Jacques Delors set up the first PEACE Programme after the ceasefires in 1994, the people of Northern Ireland were given a ‘reason to believe’ peace was possible. Four years later, the Good Friday Agreement was signed and peace has been ‘dropping slow’ ever since. The EU role in the peace process has been critical to its success. This is not only due to massive EU investment and political support but also because EU Membership facilitated UK/Ireland relations and EU funding promoted cross-border and cross community cooperation. It would be a major step backward and a tragic shame if this progress was slowed, halted or reversed in any way by Brexit.
The role played by the EU in the peace process, although vital and unique, is not widely known. The EU should showcase its success and devote greater energy to exporting the lessons learned. The Columbian President described Northern Ireland as ‘inspirational’ in the Columbian peace process. EU support for conflict resolution in places such as Colombia or the Middle East is considerable but could be more substantial, gain greater recognition and have a longer lasting effect if it were operated within a unique, global peace-building initiative. At no time since World War II, has there been a more urgent need to combat radicalisation and promote respect, understanding and tolerance worldwide. As the most successful peace project in history, the EU must take its rightful place as world leader in these challenging times.