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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Years in the making, fragile peace deals can be destroyed in minutes

Two decades on, the Good Friday agreement is imperilled by Brexit, with lessons for conflict zones worldwide

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May faces an increasingly complex situation in Northern Ireland as she drags Britain out of the EU. Stefan Rousseau / AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May faces an increasingly complex situation in Northern Ireland as she drags Britain out of the EU. Stefan Rousseau / AFP

More than 3,500 people were killed between 1969 and 1997 as unionists and republicans fought a bloody battle in the streets of Northern Ireland, until the Good Friday agreement in 1998 brought an end to “the Troubles”. It paved the way for the devolved system of government that Northern Ireland enjoys today, with a precious peace that has endured ever since.

But earlier this year, Gerry Adams, the former leader of Northern Irish republican party Sinn Fein, declined to call it a settlement. “It is an agreement on a journey,” he said. “Not the destination.”

Two decades on, the deal now seems endangered by Brexit, which threatens to reinstate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – previously a focal point of sectarian tension. It could tear open old wounds, destroy livelihoods and foster mistrust between communities co-existing amid a fragile peace.

Late last month, the Irish leader Leo Varadkar noted that the European Union and Ireland had “yet to see anything that remotely approaches” a solution. Now the Irish government has given the UK two weeks to come up with a strategy. Thoughtful steps must be taken to limit damage and ensure peace is preserved.

The question of how to maintain peace agreements in changing political, economic and social landscapes is not limited to Northern Ireland and reveals a broader point about their fragility.

Today UK Prime Minister Theresa May faces a host of challenges in her attempts to ensure a frictionless border in Ireland while dragging Britain out of the EU. They include a chorus of uncompromising, contradictory voices, a limited timeframe and shifting public opinion. Indeed, today 69 per cent of Northern Irish voters favour remaining in the EU. Such complexities are natural in places emerging from bloody conflict.

Once agreed, peace is not infinite but requires continued effort and work. Nor is it always popular, since peace agreements cannot right past wrongs.

The result of Colombia’s upcoming presidential election could make or break a landmark 2016 reconciliation with leftist Farc rebels.

There are attempts to stitch together delicate peace settlements in conflicts across the Middle East, from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. Years in the making, these deals can often be destroyed in minutes.

They are nonetheless powerful symbols of humanity. It behoves politicians of all stripes to do all they can to ensure peace prevails.