Common membership of the European Union was a factor in the improving relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom over the last 50 years. The interaction between politicians and officials on the margins of meetings and summits facilitated increased contact and understanding, including on Northern Ireland.
On the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, this EMI Analysis looks at the role the EU played in supporting the peace process. This includes the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the introduction of the EU’s Single Market in January 1993, the first PEACE Programme of July 1995 and the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985
The European Council was a catalyst for the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which “is widely regarded to be the ‘first step’ in the Northern Ireland peace process”, that lead to the Good Friday Agreement. A formal EU institution, the European Council involves the leaders of EU Member States meeting for a two-day high-level summit several times a year.
Before the Agreement, there had been “a deep freeze in Anglo-Irish relations”. This was the result of the Irish Government under Charles Haughey taking “up a neutral stance” on the Falklands War (April – June 1982) and had sought a “withdrawal of EEC sanctions against Argentina”.
However, the first steps to rapprochement came when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to meet then-Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald on the margins of the European Council in Brussels in March 1983. Both met again later that year at the June European Council in Stuttgart where “both sides agreed to commence negotiations”.
A year later on the eve of the Fontainebleau European Council of June 1984, Fitzgerald “indicated that he was willing to amend” Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland, which claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.
On the margins of the Milan European Council in June 1985, Fitzgerald emphasised to Thatcher of the sensitivities around policing in Northern Ireland, highlighting the promotion of a police officer involved in the sectarian violence of August 1969. Fitzgerald pressed the point of how if Ireland was involved “that sort of insensitivity would be far less likely”.
Thatcher “offered no challenge to FitzGerald’s testimony”. The meeting ended with both discussing the venue and date of the signing of what would become the Anglo – Irish Agreement.
Indeed, the next time both would meet face-to-face was for the signing of the Agreement at Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland in November 1985. The Agreement allowed for a degree of joint responsibility by both the British and Irish governments on Northern Ireland.
Peter Barry, who had been Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time (December 1982 – March 1987), later reflected that the EU “gave us the forum with which we could discuss matters”, and that “I can’t work out how we would have done it without the European Union”.
Robin Renwick, a senior official in the Foreign Office who led on EU affairs during the early 1980s, spoke of how “to have even the remotest chance of success in the face of ‘implacable unionist opposition’, the negotiations themselves had to be conducted in absolute secrecy”. As a result, Thatcher, and Fitzgerald “drew upon the privacy and security of the margins” of the European Council for four of the six meetings between them.
The introduction of the EU’s Single Market in January 1993
The EU’s Single Market helped bring about a softening of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The island of Ireland had been partitioned under the December 1920 Government of Ireland Act that created Northern Ireland, and the December 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the Irish Free State.
Partition negatively impacted the “largely rural and impoverished borderlands”, where “there were particularly dire consequences from severing the close social, economic and kinship ties that ran across what had previously been merely a county boundary”.
However, change came with the introduction of the EU’s Single Market. As a result of a slowdown in European integration in the 1970s, many technical custom controls remained between Member States, such as quality, safety, or hygiene standards. The Single European Act of July 1987 aimed to remove such barriers in order to foster trade across the EU, setting 1 January 1993 as the launch date of the Single Market.
This RTÉ news report mentioned how the “advent of the single market will effectively mean the closure of all our customs posts in their current form. From January 1st, private motorists will be able to drive from Belfast to Berlin without official hinderance”.
As a result, the customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which had been in existence since 1 April 1923, ceased to exist at midnight on 31 December 1992, ending almost seventy years of customs checks.
The binding principles of the Single Market “provided the basis for the progressive erasure of the significance of the land border across Ireland, and subsequently for operationalising cross-border co-operation under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”. It was the EU’s Single Market in 1993 “and the onset of the Irish Peace Process in 1994” which “meant that border customs posts and border security checkpoint instillations were surplus to requirements”.
The first PEACE Programme of July 1995
On 31 August 1994, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced that the temporary ceasefire (April 1994), would become permanent. The then-President of the European Commission Jacques Delors affirmed the EU’s “support for the ongoing peace process”, with a willingness to consider additional financial measures to help Northern Ireland.
He asked Carlo Trojan to form a Task Force to explore this with European Commission officials. In October 1994, the Task Force visited the region and consulted with over 300 people about the financial programme.
The Trojan Report was published in November 1994. It stated that the EU “has a clear interest and a vital role to play in maintaining the momentum of the peace process”. It proposed to bring forward in the spring of 1995 “a special support programme for peace and reconciliation for Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic consisting of the elements outlined in this Communication”.
In May 1995, proposals were published for a ‘Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland’, which became known as the PEACE Programme.
The first PEACE Programme was formally adopted by the EU on 28 July 1995, in agreement with Ireland and the United Kingdom, with a budget of some €500 million for the period 1995 – 9. The first PEACE Programme attracted over 31,000 applications and assisted over 15,000 projects that reached some 870,000 people.
The Programme has been renewed numerous times since, totalling over €2.2 billion, to which the EU has provided €1.5 billion (69%). Under the new PEACE Plus (2021 – 2027), the EU will contribute €206 million to the fund’s €1 billion, which has contributions from the British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland Executive.
It represents “a very tangible ‘peace dividend’ and a symbol of European solidarity. As the UK government would later acknowledge, ‘EU support, and especially the Peace programme, made a vital contribution to securing the Good Friday Agreement’”.
For example, under the PEACE Programme, the Peace Bridge in Derry, which spans the River Foyle, received £14.6m (€12.5m) in EU funding. It was built in 2011 ahead of Derry’s year as the UK’s inaugural City of Culture in 2013.
The April 1998 Good Friday Agreement
Building on earlier December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, the June 1994 European Council in Corfu saw UK Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds discuss “detailed constitutional matters” that had not otherwise been addressed between them “since 1921”.
This continued under Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Both met around the 1997 November European Council in Luxembourg. They “discussed issues later to become central components of the Good Friday Agreement”. This meeting “consolidated the relatively new working relationship between” the two, which proved key in the final intense months of negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement.
Although the EU played no direct role in the negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement contains several references to the EU. For example, it states that both governments wish “to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union”.
The EU has played a subtle but important role in the Northern Ireland peace process through support and assistance. Regular meetings and interactions in Brussels and beyond gave British and Irish ministers and officials opportunities and a neutral space to progress issues and find new understanding. The Single Market removed customs controls from the island and, as a result, made the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland more open, while the significant financial support under the PEACE programme supported economic and social opportunities that arose as a result of peace building.
For the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, European Movement Ireland’s Engagement Officer Emma Rooney, a ‘Peace Baby’, spoke to us and reflected on twenty-five years of the Good Friday Agreement.
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