In April this year, during a visit to Farmleigh House, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about her experience of borders: “For 34 years I lived behind the Iron Curtain,” she said, “so I know only too well what it means once borders vanish, once walls fall.”
On November 9, Merkel’s homeland celebrated 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Next year, on October 3, Germany will commemorate 30 years of the unified state that emerged afterwards.
Merkel’s audience in April comprised of people living along the 500km Irish border, rendered invisible following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA, also referred to as the Belfast Agreement). Her thoughts reflected the similarity of both the German and Irish experience of the removal of physical barriers, and the political, even psychological, gains that ensued.
Those post-barrier gains should be celebrated. Accepting his Nobel peace prize in December 1998 for his contribution to the peace process, the then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), John Hume, anticipated that “we will erode the distrust and prejudices of our past and our new society will evolve, based on agreement and respect for diversity.”
Hume’s quote also illustrates the differences in the German and Irish experiences of removing barriers, whether in Berlin, or in Belcoo (a village in County Fermanagh that sits on the border alongside the village of Blacklion in County Cavan). Those post-barrier processes were framed by different basic objectives: unification in Germany’s case; peace and reconciliation on this island.
In his 1938 poem Epic, Patrick Kavanagh compared a local land dispute in County Monaghan with what he called the “Munich bother”, a reference to the Munich agreement that failed to prevent World War II. One major difference today is that both Germany and Ireland are in the EU, which Hume praised in his Nobel speech as the “best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution.” It was the introduction of the EU single market in 1993, for example, that removed customs posts along the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, over 70 years after its formation.
Meeting in Brussels since joining the then-European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, which became the European Union (EU) in 1993, also helped defrost Anglo-Irish relations. That constructive habit of working together on concrete projects of mutual interest, such as the single market, helped frame and encourage the process that led to the 1998 GFA/Belfast Agreement.
Furthermore, the European Commission has long supported the peace process in Northern Ireland, specifically through the “PEACE programme” which is funded from the EU budget. Since 1995, the EU has spent over €1.5bn on peace-support programmes in Northern Ireland.
The EU also played a vital, if different, supporting role in the process of German unification. For one, poorer East German states still receive EU economic development funds. Much of the €11bn Germany has been granted from the EU’s regional development fund, from 2014-2020, has been spent in its Eastern states.
For another, working with Germany at the EU table in the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, on joint projects such as the Euro currency or the Schengen passport-free travel zone, has helped reassure those who worried in 1990 about the power, influence, and geopolitical intentions of a larger Germany in the centre of Europe. If anything, there are grounds today to worry about a lack of German leadership at the EU table, say on the deepening of the Eurozone, than Berlin wielding too much power.
It is hard to imagine how the GFA/Belfast Agreement would have come about, without the political space provided by Ireland and the UK’s shared EU membership. The recent Brexit negotiations on the British-Irish border showed how difficult it is to avoid a “hard” international border, such as customs posts, without a shared legal framework. Much of today’s seamless cross-border cooperation – aspired to in “Strand II” of the GFA/Belfast Agreement – functions because of shared EU rules.
There is no doubt that the UK’s 2016 decision to leave the EU has turbo-charged a debate about Irish unification. For instance, successive opinion polls in Northern Ireland since 2016 have shown a significant increase in support for Irish unity, depending on the type of Brexit, from below 30% to roughly 50%.
In outlining how a unity poll might be implemented, some have pointed to German unification as a potential precedent for Ireland. For example, this has been done in both Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly’s 2018 report for the Oireachtas, and a more recent study commissioned by the United Left grouping at the European Parliament, which includes Sinn Féin, written by Queen’s University Belfast Professor of Human Rights Law Colin Harvey and barrister Mark Bassett.
Those authors note, however, that the German precedent “offers much assistance but cannot serve as a complete model.” Removing physical barriers is one thing, but integrating societies is quite another. The EU could and would play a supportive role in any prospective Irish unification, but the German experience has been very different.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that while nine-in-ten Germans consider unification to have been a good thing, majorities in both East and West feel that living standard improvements have been unequally distributed. Initial hopes of a smooth integration were gradually eroded by the way in which unification happened, which social historian Philipp Ther described as “an extension of West Germany, not a union of two equal states.”
In contrast to Germany in 1990, the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic are already quite integrated, but political identities are probably more fragmented. It is right to celebrate the removal of physical barriers across Europe, in places as diverse as Berlin and Belcoo. But those experiences also show the major differences between the challenge of unifying people on the one hand and sustaining peace and reconciliation on the other.