Brexit and the Significance of the Downing Street Declaration

The outstanding achievement of Albert Reynolds and John Major was the Downing Street Declaration, agreed twenty five years ago today.  Its significance has been overshadowed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but the GFA would not have been possible without the Declaration.  Why?  Because the Declaration offered the solution to the causal origin of the conflict in Northern Ireland, namely the denial of Ireland’s national determination through Britain’s imposition of partition.

With the antic Loki of Brexit now playing havoc with relations on these islands, to reflect now on the Downing Street Declaration is a salutary exercise.

Back in 1993, there was a palpable sense that the IRA’s campaign was winding down after almost a quarter of a century.  This was due in no small measure to John Hume’s strategic vision and sterling courage in embarking on the Hume-Adams dialogue, despite the horrendous public abuse heaped on him from some quarters.

Violence calls so much attention to itself that it seems like it is actually the problem.  A facile conclusion is reached; ending the violence is the solution.

However, key Irish officials like Sean Ó hUigínn and his team at Iveagh House knew that, in fact, the causal origin of the violence had to be addressed.  In the context of a divided island and a divided society in Northern Ireland, how does one offer the prospect of an assertion of national, all-island self-determination?

The Declaration set out the key principles agreed by the British and Irish governments to achieve this: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South, and that the British government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

However, the key part of the text is this: it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination.” In other words, the settlement would be endorsed by the people of the island as a whole, thus binding up the original caesura of partition.  And indeed the legitimacy of the Good Friday Agreement derives in the main from its endorsement in two simultaneous referenda on this island.

Under the Declaration, this would be no mere exercise in the metaphysics of statecraft.  In practical terms, both governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest.

And of course, the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence as well as a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, our doctrinal expression of Ireland’s territorial integrity was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader to engage this issue was political leadership of a very high order indeed on the part of the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.

Reynolds and Major appealed to all sides to grasp the opportunity for a new departure that would compromise no position or principle, nor prejudice the future for either community. In the stirring words of the Declaration’s concluding paragraph: “On the contrary, it would be an incomparable gain for all. It would break decisively the cycle of violence and the intolerable suffering it entails…..these arrangements offer an opportunity to lay the foundations for a more peaceful and harmonious future, devoid of the violence and bitter divisions which have scarred the past generation. They commit themselves and their Governments to continue to work together, unremittingly, towards that objective.”

But don’t let the high flying rhetorical flourish distract you.  The Declaration cut to the very belly of the beast of the conflict.  It wrestled with fundamental concepts and interpreted them such that the Declaration provided the map toward a new constitutional status for Northern Ireland and a new set of relations within the British-Irish archipelago.

And now Brexit, an anarchic genie released by a sorcerer’s apprentice, a Prime Minister who simply didn’t know the potency of the forces he was summoning. (It’s not clear that Cameron knows yet what he’s done.) Brexit is the ideological equivalent of a nuclear bomb, a chain reaction that changes and consumes all that it encounters.  Hyperbole?  I wish.

It took two governments, the support of a world superpower, and the propitious environment of the EU project – borderless frontiers and all – to contain the hostile beasts of Northern Ireland’s conflicts and divisions.  Our recent and current political leadership has been a stalwart custodian of the means and legacy of our hard-won peace.  Sadly, some of that has been forgotten in the melée of Brexit across the water.

Yet somewhere in the future, men and women of statecraft will wrestle with Brexit’s contagious fallout  They will need vision, insight, calls to higher principles, and infinite determination.  As they weary at a task that will be so all-consuming, they can look back on the Downing Street Declaration for inspiration.




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