Clodagh Kilcoyne / REUTERS Parliament buildings at Stormont is seen at night in Belfast, Northern Ireland, February  2018.

Northern Ireland's Brexit Problem

Does It Threaten the Good Friday Agreement's Future?

Next month, the Irish and British people should be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement serves as the cornerstone of the power-sharing deal between Northern Ireland’s unionists and nationalists that helped bring an end to years of violence. It has cemented a long-term constitutional settlement between the United Kingdom and Ireland, in which both states agree that the people of Northern Ireland are free to choose their own destiny. There won’t be any Happy Birthday party this year, however. The power-sharing arrangement that governs the North is on hold, and some prominent British politicians are suggesting that the deal ought to be abandoned altogether.

The Good Friday Agreement faces real internal challenges. First, the center has fallen out of Northern Irish politics. The more moderate Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party that were at the center of the original peace deal have been displaced by their more intransigent respective unionist and nationalist rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. Meanwhile, the smaller cross-community parties that helped cement the initial deal have largely disappeared. The result is that hard-liners on both sides now dominate the Northern Irish power-sharing executive envisaged by the agreement.

For a long time, this worked better than expected. Both sides saw pragmatic benefits to cooperation and were led by people with experience and clout such as Martin McGuinness. In 2017, however, a scandal over a renewable energy scheme that went massively overbudget led Sinn Fein to withdraw from a power-sharing executive that depends on participation from both sides. Now, the leadership of each wing is weaker, and it is the Democratic Unionist Party that is being intransigent. It refuses to return to power sharing because of a controversy over official recognition of the Irish (Gaelic) language, which its supporters see as a big concession to Irish nationalism.

Distrust between the two sides is compounded by the British government’s reliance on Democratic Unionist support in Parliament. Many nationalists

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