America must not be complacent about Ireland

Two decades ago in the city of Belfast, dozens of leaders from the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland signed a document to end decades of violence. The Good Friday Agreement was a blueprint to bring peace to the island of Ireland. Over the years, it has been the steadfast commitment of all sides to this agreement that has brought the stability we know today.

The US, in particular, has maintained its strong commitment to peace in Ireland. Brokered by special envoy George Mitchell, the agreement was one of our country’s great foreign policy achievements of the 20th century. Successive administrations and many members of Congress have supported the Northern Ireland peace process through development aid and the International Fund for Ireland.

In July 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive appointed former US diplomat Richard Haass as the independent chair of inter-party talks aimed at tackling some of the most divisive issues in Northern Irish society. Successive US special envoys have remained committed to the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements aimed at furthering reconciliation. While problems persist in Northern Ireland, peace is enjoyed by all its citizens.

But now, Brexit threatens the seminal agreement and the peace it created. While the Good Friday Agreement brought violence to an end, the softening of the border between the two countries was critical to the peace deal’s success. Membership of the EU was crucial. By letting people freely travel and work across the island, border communities have thrived.

During the decades of conflict, the border became a toxic symbol. Heavily militarised and littered with checkpoints, the 300-mile border that cuts through villages and farms was patrolled by soldiers. The peace agreement made all that disappear. It literally broke down barriers along the border and among its communities.

As a close ally of both the UK and Ireland and one of the Good Friday Agreement’s three guarantors, the US government must make clear that we continue to stand in strong support of peace. We must staunchly oppose the return of a hard border between the two countries. Such a regression would threaten stability on the island.

If we turn our back now, the bonds of border communities would be destroyed, upending people’s lives and livelihoods and threatening a return to conflict. Family members would struggle to see their loved ones across the border. Workers and business owners would be forced to overcome high hurdles to continue their cross-border endeavours.

Both countries’ economies would take a blow as barriers arose in their trade policy. Even things such as patient care would be jeopardised, as the two countries have become so closely integrated that they share hospital resources.

Two weeks ago, following these critical times in the Brexit debate, I introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives opposing the re-establishment of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The resolution has gained co-sponsors and support from Republicans and Democrats.

This bipartisan support demonstrates that an insurance policy or safety net to ensure that there is no hard border is absolutely critical for Brexit. The seamless border protects the all-Ireland economy and reinforces the peace deal. Peace is not a given. It must be constantly upheld and cannot be taken for granted.

Over the years, America has consistently reaffirmed its commitment to help create a strong and peaceful society in Northern Ireland. Our continued involvement is critical for maintaining that peace. It is also critical that my fellow congressmen continue their support for peace throughout the island, and that our friends across the Atlantic take note. When our allies succeed we all succeed.

The writer is a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives


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