Peace is like a good marriage.. you have to keep working on it

Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder

Brexit threatens the very fabric of the Good Friday Agreement, argues Lib Dem MEP CATHERINE BEARDER. But the Brexiteers don't seem to understand

I spent my teenage years watching reports of murders, bombings, fear and terror in my own country, feeling guilty that I was not able to do anything to stop this carnage.

So as the peace was carefully crafted through the work of brave men and women, we all breathed a sigh of relief as the two parts of Ireland became neighbours and partners again. They had worked out how to live with each other, largely of course with the help of that other peace project – the European Union.

I'm ashamed to say that when I visited Ireland in January, it was my first trip there. As we drove North, the only evidence I had crossing the border was the ping from my phone to tell me I had changed my network. This is what modern Ireland looks like. Seamless. Frictionless. Peaceful. Travel is easy, moving from one country to another is easy, just as it is when I go to Brussels, via France – no borders, no passports, and definitely no soldiers. A far cry from the dark days of the Troubles.

We can all look back and applaud how both sides were able to bring all parties to the table and broker a meaningful deal. A deal that brought peace and normality to the island of Ireland.

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But it isn't as easy as it looks, it's painstaking work maintaining peace. It's like a marriage, and like any good marriage you have to keep working at it.

We should be celebrating this week's milestone. Twenty years of peace and harmony thanks to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). But Brexit is a real threat to the peace on the island of Ireland.

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That is one of the reasons we are fighting to stop Brexit. Does the Conservative government really understand the full implications of what Brexit means in real-life terms? Certainly some of their prominent members don't appreciate the GFA.

Daniel Hannan, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and others don't get what the GFA means daily. On my visit, I met with an excellent campaign group – Border Communities Against Brexit in the small town of Forkhill. It sits on the border in South Armagh, an area referred to as 'Bandit Country' during the Troubles as it was the scene of some of the most prevalent IRA activities.

In the early days of the Troubles, the British Army opened a barracks in Forkhill to accommodate around 600 soldiers right next to a housing estate. Helicopters regularly took off and landed over the roofs of these homes, some even damaging them. The army controlled the television signals as well as the street lighting. It was one of the most dangerous places for British soldiers.

No one wants a return to those days.

The residents of Forkhill had been looking towards the future, not the past. On the site of the old barracks they are building a community garden and a wider project called the Peace Forest Ireland Initiative which aims to plant 4,000 trees on both sides of the border in memory of those who died during the Troubles. This is an ex-military site being redeveloped as a clear signal that the local community is moving forward, putting the past behind it.

Hannan et al – are you listening? The GFA works for the people who live with it daily.

Pause for a moment and ask – if the government had fudged the GFA the way it seems to be fudging the Brexit negotiations, where would we be 20 years on?

Worth remembering too is that the GFA was put to the people to judge. The final deal was looked at, discussed, debated and voted on by the people of Ireland, including those in the Republic of Ireland. They were given the choice to accept or reject it. The people had to be on board to make it a success.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the GFA, it is that people need a say on any final deal.

Over the last months the Liberal leader in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt MEP and Sir Vince Cable MP the Liberal Democrat leader, have also been to Ireland. They visited Dublin and the border to meet with business and political leaders. When I visited I was accompanied by other Lib Dems including Tom Brake MP, our Brexit spokesman, Lord Dick Newby, the Lib Dem's leader in the House of Lords and other parliamentarians. We have all seen for ourselves what Brexit threatens to take away.

The Liberal Democrats are taking the GFA seriously. We want to let both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland know that they still have friends. Anglo-Irish relations were never so good as they were up until Brexit. We are now in danger of throwing it all away. For us there is no deal better than the one we already have as members of the European Union with the GFA in place, supported by all.

That is why we say that whatever deal the government finally does with the EU, with the yawning gap on the Irish border still too wide and uncertain, it must be up to the people who will live with the effects of Brexit to say if they still think it is worth it

Maybe one day, Johnson, Fox and Hannan will actually realise what we are at risk of losing. They might discover there is no softer, frictionless border than the one that we have already. Two decades ago the GFA took people forward. Brexit takes us back.

Catherine Bearder is the Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England

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