Anthony McIntyre digests the ideas in a book on the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. 


In the first lines of his forward for this book, Richard Humphreys wastes no time in setting out his stall. His purpose was to examine and explain the implications of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to any potential constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland. By the time I had reached the last page, it seemed beyond dispute that he had made no idle boast.

The author, a former legal advisor to the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition, and currently a High Court Judge, had his interest in the North’s constitutional minefield fired by participation in the opening sessions of the 1996 talks that ultimately came to fruition in the GFA. He did not seek to exaggerate his role, merely saying he was on the margins of the Irish delegation. Back then he was on the periphery of the process, today he is an authority on it.

Much has been penned about the Good Friday Agreement but nothing quite like this. Richard Humphreys writes in clear language and where the narrative becomes unavoidably complex because of the structures, processes and relationships involved, he circumvents anything resembling the legalese and sometimes archaic language of the court where he plies his trade. The concepts he elucidates are always accessible to the reader.

As a judge he might hand out punishment but as an analyst he is something of a glutton for it, setting himself the unenviable task of correcting many of the misunderstandings that exist within the political class about what the GFA means. While many of them like to be politically correct, they do not like being factually corrected and can be quite acerbic in their responses. Yet Humphreys is spot on: at times his targets seem to be learner drivers, in need of an instructor to advise them of the rules of the political highway.

At least the ignorance being cross community says something for parity of esteem.

The author was writing after the referendum had paved the way for the British to exit the European Union but had not yet witnessed in full the Monty Pythonesque farce it has degenerated into. Brexit has not only constituted an assault on the logic of the GFA but also has threatened to:

rupture a whole suite of arrangements and presuppositions that have existed on the island in the forty-five years since the UK and Ireland joined together on 1 January 1973.

With so much up in the air as a result of Brexit, there is a tendency in some quarters to spin the GFA as a feast of moving parts: a cynical exercise in political opportunism designed to allow them to escape the parts that constrain them. Hence Arleen Foster, the DUP leader, argues that it is not a sacrosanct agreement. Humphries shows that it very much is.

When I read Seamus Mallon’s A Shared Homeplace and observed how he had evolved to the point of assuming an implacable hostility to the 50 + 1 rule for bringing about Irish unity, I thought to myself how much he would have benefited from reading Beyond The Border, the subtitle of which is The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit. By the time I reached the closing pages of Mallon’s book where he revealed that he had in fact read it, I was even more amazed that he seemed to have learned so little from it. Humphreys, while acknowledging the 50+1 as a “crude majority test” nevertheless nails the issue concisely, anticipating and dismissing the Mallon argument in favour a super majority. 

Generally people who say that one cannot coerce hundreds of thousands of unionists into a united Ireland have no real problem with coercing hundreds of thousands of nationalists into a United Kingdom.

Enter a linked theme: the book also has lessons for those who felt that Mary Lou McDonald walking behind a banner in New York proclaiming England Get Out Of Ireland was somehow a thought crime of grave proportions. Brits Out, to give the banner a more traditional republican inflection, is as valid a position to hold as Brits In, with the overriding stipulation that the Brits in this context is government rather than unionist citizens of the North. Oddly, the author seems to distance himself from the concept suggesting it represents “a certain failure to take on board the right of people of Northern Ireland to regard themselves as British." 

Humphreys approaches his subject in every conceivable way, starting out with chapters on the architecture and evolution of the GFA followed by a chapter on the challenges of Brexit. It then moves on to a discussion of the implications for Irish unity and more, including the St Andrews Agreement, the Stormont House Agreement, the Fresh Start Agreement, and the up-down history of the Assembly and Executive. A cynic might wonder how with so many agreements there is so much disagreement.

I read the book as someone who for long had been immersed in republican activism. I have never been enamoured to the GFA. I can live with it but not with the pretence that it made the IRA’s struggle worth it. The Agreement does nothing to validate the IRA's armed coercion, championing instead the principle of consent. The Good Friday Agreement was an internal solution to what was framed as an internal problem, a stark rebuttal of the republican analysis of the root cause of the conflict. Arguably its most significant achievement lay in bringing the Provisional Movement to embrace a position it had long abhorred and then to persuade many of its members that Good Friday rather than Easter Sunday was really what the armed campaigning was waged for, equality rather than unity. As the late Martin McGuinness said in relation to another matter "total and absolute nonsense and … hooey of the worst kind."

Beyond The Border reaffirmed for me the absolute failure of the armed Provisional project I had been involved in, the stated aim of which was to expel the British state from Ireland. The Agreement might not ensure partition into perpetuity as Tom King - a 1980s British Secretary of State in the North - once felt was the written in stone predestined future for the North but it certainly guarantees, for as long as people in the North wish it, a role for the British state. The GFA and its British administrative input will outlive partition and coexist with Irish Unity. Even then an internal border could remain while a separate Northern executive would continue to administratively function. “… the British dimension of Northern Ireland is a permanent feature of the constitutional landscape.” Were all the deaths and misery that we, the Loyalists and the British state managed between us to inflict worth that? Not by a long shot. No war was needed to bring us to this point.

I am no more receptive to the Good Friday Agreement having read the book, but I cannot deny that my understanding of it has been enhanced exponentially. For that reason, those republicans who continue to think armed campaigning is a productive means of tackling what they perceive as Ireland’s British problem could, if they possessed a modicum of politically savvy, see just how comprehensive the defeat of coercive republicanism has been, how it was nailed to the cross on Good Friday 1998 and has no chance of being resurrected no matter how many Easter Sundays come to pass. The author while favouring Irish unity, shows that while not unattainable it is certainly a much more complex and layered phenomenon than the one dimensional militaristic minds of armed republicanism seem to believe.

Humphreys has been rebuked in some quarters, notably by former Taoiseach John Bruton, for serving up a limited purely legalistic approach. It is far from certain that Bruton has restored balance, but has instead allowed his own political preference get in the way of vertical thinking. Humphreys, did bring a legal mind to his task but to suggest he might have been short on political savvy highlights the dangers of lateral thinking shaped by a skewed political perspective.

It is hard to lavish enough praise on this work. Thematic and structured, each theme is developed in a linear fashion to assist the reader avoid the loss of their soul to the devil of detail. Erudite, methodical, tightly reasoned and crystal clear in layout and presentation, it is an indispensable thread to guide intellectual travellers through the labyrinthine processes of the Good Friday Agreement in a time when Brexit bandits have shaken the tree in a hope that if they cannot uproot it, they can benefit from the shakedown. There is even something in the book for those conspiracy theorists who believe that Britain's role in Ireland has been the working out of a long religious Jihad against Irish Catholicism. Humphreys refers to the “blatantly anti-Catholic pieces of legislation still on the Westminster Statue book” before going on to list them. 

I have recommended Richard Humphreys' book to people with polar opposite views such as Jamie Bryson and Sean Bresnahan. Students of Northern politics and its practitioners, who make little or no effort to familiarise themselves with the arguments laid out in Beyond The Border will ultimately short change their supporters. Arleen Foster might well be a recipient of dubious turkey but that hardly means she will be able to talk turkey at the key moment.

Richard Humphreys, 2018. Beyond The Border: The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit. Merrion Press. ISBN 978-1-78537-205-6

Beyond The Border

Anthony McIntyre digests the ideas in a book on the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. 


In the first lines of his forward for this book, Richard Humphreys wastes no time in setting out his stall. His purpose was to examine and explain the implications of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to any potential constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland. By the time I had reached the last page, it seemed beyond dispute that he had made no idle boast.

The author, a former legal advisor to the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition, and currently a High Court Judge, had his interest in the North’s constitutional minefield fired by participation in the opening sessions of the 1996 talks that ultimately came to fruition in the GFA. He did not seek to exaggerate his role, merely saying he was on the margins of the Irish delegation. Back then he was on the periphery of the process, today he is an authority on it.

Much has been penned about the Good Friday Agreement but nothing quite like this. Richard Humphreys writes in clear language and where the narrative becomes unavoidably complex because of the structures, processes and relationships involved, he circumvents anything resembling the legalese and sometimes archaic language of the court where he plies his trade. The concepts he elucidates are always accessible to the reader.

As a judge he might hand out punishment but as an analyst he is something of a glutton for it, setting himself the unenviable task of correcting many of the misunderstandings that exist within the political class about what the GFA means. While many of them like to be politically correct, they do not like being factually corrected and can be quite acerbic in their responses. Yet Humphreys is spot on: at times his targets seem to be learner drivers, in need of an instructor to advise them of the rules of the political highway.

At least the ignorance being cross community says something for parity of esteem.

The author was writing after the referendum had paved the way for the British to exit the European Union but had not yet witnessed in full the Monty Pythonesque farce it has degenerated into. Brexit has not only constituted an assault on the logic of the GFA but also has threatened to:

rupture a whole suite of arrangements and presuppositions that have existed on the island in the forty-five years since the UK and Ireland joined together on 1 January 1973.

With so much up in the air as a result of Brexit, there is a tendency in some quarters to spin the GFA as a feast of moving parts: a cynical exercise in political opportunism designed to allow them to escape the parts that constrain them. Hence Arleen Foster, the DUP leader, argues that it is not a sacrosanct agreement. Humphries shows that it very much is.

When I read Seamus Mallon’s A Shared Homeplace and observed how he had evolved to the point of assuming an implacable hostility to the 50 + 1 rule for bringing about Irish unity, I thought to myself how much he would have benefited from reading Beyond The Border, the subtitle of which is The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit. By the time I reached the closing pages of Mallon’s book where he revealed that he had in fact read it, I was even more amazed that he seemed to have learned so little from it. Humphreys, while acknowledging the 50+1 as a “crude majority test” nevertheless nails the issue concisely, anticipating and dismissing the Mallon argument in favour a super majority. 

Generally people who say that one cannot coerce hundreds of thousands of unionists into a united Ireland have no real problem with coercing hundreds of thousands of nationalists into a United Kingdom.

Enter a linked theme: the book also has lessons for those who felt that Mary Lou McDonald walking behind a banner in New York proclaiming England Get Out Of Ireland was somehow a thought crime of grave proportions. Brits Out, to give the banner a more traditional republican inflection, is as valid a position to hold as Brits In, with the overriding stipulation that the Brits in this context is government rather than unionist citizens of the North. Oddly, the author seems to distance himself from the concept suggesting it represents “a certain failure to take on board the right of people of Northern Ireland to regard themselves as British." 

Humphreys approaches his subject in every conceivable way, starting out with chapters on the architecture and evolution of the GFA followed by a chapter on the challenges of Brexit. It then moves on to a discussion of the implications for Irish unity and more, including the St Andrews Agreement, the Stormont House Agreement, the Fresh Start Agreement, and the up-down history of the Assembly and Executive. A cynic might wonder how with so many agreements there is so much disagreement.

I read the book as someone who for long had been immersed in republican activism. I have never been enamoured to the GFA. I can live with it but not with the pretence that it made the IRA’s struggle worth it. The Agreement does nothing to validate the IRA's armed coercion, championing instead the principle of consent. The Good Friday Agreement was an internal solution to what was framed as an internal problem, a stark rebuttal of the republican analysis of the root cause of the conflict. Arguably its most significant achievement lay in bringing the Provisional Movement to embrace a position it had long abhorred and then to persuade many of its members that Good Friday rather than Easter Sunday was really what the armed campaigning was waged for, equality rather than unity. As the late Martin McGuinness said in relation to another matter "total and absolute nonsense and … hooey of the worst kind."

Beyond The Border reaffirmed for me the absolute failure of the armed Provisional project I had been involved in, the stated aim of which was to expel the British state from Ireland. The Agreement might not ensure partition into perpetuity as Tom King - a 1980s British Secretary of State in the North - once felt was the written in stone predestined future for the North but it certainly guarantees, for as long as people in the North wish it, a role for the British state. The GFA and its British administrative input will outlive partition and coexist with Irish Unity. Even then an internal border could remain while a separate Northern executive would continue to administratively function. “… the British dimension of Northern Ireland is a permanent feature of the constitutional landscape.” Were all the deaths and misery that we, the Loyalists and the British state managed between us to inflict worth that? Not by a long shot. No war was needed to bring us to this point.

I am no more receptive to the Good Friday Agreement having read the book, but I cannot deny that my understanding of it has been enhanced exponentially. For that reason, those republicans who continue to think armed campaigning is a productive means of tackling what they perceive as Ireland’s British problem could, if they possessed a modicum of politically savvy, see just how comprehensive the defeat of coercive republicanism has been, how it was nailed to the cross on Good Friday 1998 and has no chance of being resurrected no matter how many Easter Sundays come to pass. The author while favouring Irish unity, shows that while not unattainable it is certainly a much more complex and layered phenomenon than the one dimensional militaristic minds of armed republicanism seem to believe.

Humphreys has been rebuked in some quarters, notably by former Taoiseach John Bruton, for serving up a limited purely legalistic approach. It is far from certain that Bruton has restored balance, but has instead allowed his own political preference get in the way of vertical thinking. Humphreys, did bring a legal mind to his task but to suggest he might have been short on political savvy highlights the dangers of lateral thinking shaped by a skewed political perspective.

It is hard to lavish enough praise on this work. Thematic and structured, each theme is developed in a linear fashion to assist the reader avoid the loss of their soul to the devil of detail. Erudite, methodical, tightly reasoned and crystal clear in layout and presentation, it is an indispensable thread to guide intellectual travellers through the labyrinthine processes of the Good Friday Agreement in a time when Brexit bandits have shaken the tree in a hope that if they cannot uproot it, they can benefit from the shakedown. There is even something in the book for those conspiracy theorists who believe that Britain's role in Ireland has been the working out of a long religious Jihad against Irish Catholicism. Humphreys refers to the “blatantly anti-Catholic pieces of legislation still on the Westminster Statue book” before going on to list them. 

I have recommended Richard Humphreys' book to people with polar opposite views such as Jamie Bryson and Sean Bresnahan. Students of Northern politics and its practitioners, who make little or no effort to familiarise themselves with the arguments laid out in Beyond The Border will ultimately short change their supporters. Arleen Foster might well be a recipient of dubious turkey but that hardly means she will be able to talk turkey at the key moment.

Richard Humphreys, 2018. Beyond The Border: The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity After Brexit. Merrion Press. ISBN 978-1-78537-205-6

12 comments:

  1. Must look out for that.....even though I am by nature averse to reading anything along those lines...but will give it a go and determine the accuracy of your review!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. why are you averse to reading that type of stuff? My review is an accurate reflection of how I read it - whether you agree with it or not is another matter.

      Delete
  2. Because it is usually the same old run of the mill Troubles tripe....as for your review I've no doubt that it is an accurate reflection of how you see it but your eyes are not mine

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. there is a lot of troubles tripe about but this is not one of them

      Delete
  3. That's why, based on your review, I decided I might give it a go!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. it is very cogent - read it for a better understanding of the GFA - it is a descriptive work much more than prescriptive

      Delete
  4. I am sick to the teeth with Troubles books and still they keep getting sent! Quite a few here to review. Can't read out here like we did in the jail!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. AM

    This is a very powerful critic and it is so matter of factly set out that I daresay that any future reader of Humphries book will be unable to punch any holes in your review. My interest in reading Irish political books was lost years ago though I occassionally skim read them,skipping over the same old same old, -this sounds like one worth tracking down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Christy - it is a fine book and I hope the review reflects that. It is sort of nice to be judging a judge!! I doubt he will mind.

      Delete
  6. AM

    Given your coming from the other end of the spectrum so to speak means it must be a book relevant and pertinent to a wider audience than the average Irish political book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Christy - it is one to have in any collection about the conflict.

      Delete