The political history of 20th-Century Ireland is book-ended between the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
These descriptions are very evidently linked symbolically to key events in the Christian calendar. Pearse’s writings leading up to the Rising are suffused with religious metaphor, for which he was notably criticised in an article by F. Francis Shaw SJ for Studies written in 1966 but held back till 1972. But the Easter Rising remains the name almost universally given to the rebellion in Dublin in 1916.
The Good Friday Agreement was the name Bertie Ahern was especially keen on for the 1998 accord, both because of its reference back to the Easter Rising but also because it subliminally emphasised the moral and Christian purpose of what had been agreed. The name was readily adopted by Tony Blair and President Clinton.
Others were not so keen on the religious overtones, and insist on calling it the Belfast Agreement. This is firm editorial policy in the Irish Times, but is also the practice of many unionists and Northern Protestant ministers of religion, some of them always on the alert for manifestations of the influence of Rome real or imagined, in this case imagined, and in many cases more reserved in their support for the Agreement.
Other than the fact that the Agreement was concluded (it was never signed – signed copies were for souvenir purposes only) on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, there is no clear connection with the original Good Friday, and no attempt has been made to create one.
April 2018 is the month of two important anniversaries: the conscription crisis of 1918 and the Good Friday Agreement of 20 years ago. Accounts of both events tend to downplay the role and input of the Catholic Church.
The Church turned political opposition to conscription into an all-out moral crusade, uniting both with the Irish Parliamentary Party under Redmond’s successor, John Dillon, and with Sinn Féin under Eamon de Valera. After the Rising itself, the conscription crisis is credited with galvanising public opinion, which resulted in the sweeping victory of Sinn Féin the following December.
John Redmond, whose death 100 years ago will be remembered in Wexford this coming Sunday in a State ceremony, which was postponed in March because of the bad weather, was always adamantly opposed to conscription, though he supported voluntary enlistment.
Redmond’s denigrators never give him any credit for this, and indeed because of the party’s opposition Ireland was exempted from conscription introduced for the rest of the United Kingdom in January 1916. Because of the reaction when it was attempted shortly after Redmond’s death, conscription was not introduced in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. The instinctive reaction to the very suggestion is so strong that every time that a new European Treaty has to be ratified, opponents come up with the bogey of conscription to a European army. The only surprise is the number of educated people gullible enough to swallow it.
Notwithstanding the current political impasse over the Executive, support for the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement remains overwhelming at home and abroad, and not least in the European Union. The agreement obtained above all the benefits of peace for Northern Ireland and the whole island.
While the political border remains, the physical border effectively disappeared, thanks both to the peace process and the European Single Market. No one sees a return to violence as an answer to current political difficulties, though a low-level residual remains.
There is little doubt that Brexit threw a spanner into the working of the Agreement, which assumed, as is evident from its text, British and Irish membership of the EU would continue.
So did the Church of Ireland, two-thirds of whose members live in Northern Ireland. When it published its new edition of the Book of Common Prayer in 2004, it included not only the Litany, but a modernized version called the Litany in contemporary language. This was used on Good Friday in St Mary’s Tipperary, and included the prayer: “Bless the European Union, and draw us closer to one another in justice and freedom”.
The language echoes the “ever closer union” in the preamble to the Treaty of Rome so detested by supporters of Brexit. One could not help thinking that this version, or at least this prayer, may not be much used north of the border in a year or two’s time.
The border, which runs through communities (and dioceses) not between them, is a real stumbling block for Brexit. As the DUP’s Gregory Campbell MP acknowledged in a letter to the Financial Times on April 3, even at the height of the Troubles it could not be secured by police, military and customs.
That fact was behind the formalisation of the Common Travel Area in 1952, after Ireland became a Republic and left the Commonwealth, and its maintenance after restrictions on Commonwealth immigration were introduced in 1961. Otherwise, British citizens (i.e. Unionists) would have been among those who had to be stopped to show identity at ports and airports in Great Britain, and, as we know, that would not be acceptable to them.
One of the biggest weaknesses in the case for Brexit has been the failure of its protagonists to demonstrate in tangible terms the economic benefits that will flow from the freedom to conclude all those fantastic(al) bilateral trade deals with far-flung countries as a substitute for more restricted access to the large EU market on the doorstep.
Even Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher understood that Commonwealth markets would not be nearly sufficient to sustain prosperity, so what has changed since?
It may be that the uncertainties of Brexit will have to be resolved and the exceptional hold that the DUP have over the British Government cease, before power-sharing in Northern Ireland resumes. The new factor in the situation is that the option of a united Ireland will in future be bound up with the question of the North rejoining the EU.