Writing the ‘Troubles’ in the Shadow of Brexit

By Amanda Hall 

The reality of life in Northern Ireland was articulated over the weekend by PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton: ‘There’s a feeling that as regards the Troubles and the conflict, Northern Ireland is sorted and we don’t need to worry about it, when actually we’re working flat out 24/7 to keep a lid on it’.[1] This sentiment is felt across Northern Ireland, as the looming spectre of Brexit and the continued instability of devolved government in the region threatens to undo two decades of work in the post-‘Troubles’ era. With worrying comments made as recently as this week by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the threat of the future unknown has come to have a direct impact on work being done on the past.[2] This has the additional complication of colouring efforts at interviews conducted on this period and, in many cases, derailing them with talk of potential future upheaval. However, these conversations are illuminating in new ways, highlighting the parts of ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland that still feel most at risk today, as well as critical gaps in the ostensibly post-conflict era.

Thomas Leahy wrote on this platform several months ago about the importance of interviews as tools to frame archival work and discover viewpoints that may not be reflected in the archival record. This remains as true in looking at the recent past as it does in Leahy’s own research on IRA strategy during the ‘Troubles’ themselves. My current research is concerned with the ‘inter-referendum’ period in Northern Ireland: the 18 years between the Good Friday Agreement Referendum (1998) and the Brexit Referendum (2016). In framing my project in this way, I had intended to utilise interviews to go beyond what is currently available in archival records by speaking to those involved in the community and voluntary sector about the ways these individuals and their organisations have adapted to this period of relative calm.[3] While I have been able to employ interviews in this way, Brexit and the future unknown have become a major factor in my PhD; something I had wished to avoid.

Like many studying Northern Ireland, the spectre of Brexit has loomed large over my research, colouring everything from my framework – the project originally aimed to look at the region since the Good Friday Agreement, but is now much more temporally-bound – to the interviews that I have conducted over the past year. Worries about Brexit have become inescapable, even in researching the period prior to the 2016 vote. In carrying out interviews, I have come to agree with Leahy’s perspective on the role of these conversations in hearing ‘previously unheard voices’, as it has provided the opportunity to assess information that does not grace newspaper headlines or publicly circulated materials. Indeed, many of these interviews have provided vital information that would not make it into other sources on the conflict, specifically anecdotal (but valuable) information of specific initiatives that have worked, or individuals that have been impacted. While interviews have been fruitful in this regard (and I am enjoying the process of writing up my findings!), it was difficult in the first instance to navigate the insistence of many of those with whom I spoke to discuss Brexit and not their experiences post-the Good Friday Agreement.

Despite the benefits of interviews, this effort at ‘filling in the blanks’ remains difficult when the biggest ‘blank’ in Northern Ireland today is not what happened but what is to come. Given that my research is not directly concerned with Brexit and its potential impact, the shift in these initial conversations was rather unexpected, but has ultimately proven fruitful in a way I could not have predicted.

Across Northern Ireland I have observed a sense of inevitability around the Good Friday Agreement referendum: the majority of people wanted to support the Agreement and did so. Even with this broad support, the Agreement has produced some potentially unintended consequences – most notably the political, social, and cultural stalemate seen today.[4] In contrast, the majority of voters in Northern Ireland did not support the Brexit referendum and the uncertainty it would bring for their collective futures – this uncertainty leaks into the views of the past, highlighting the parts of life today that are most at risk.

It is difficult to think back to both the successes and struggles of the past when the hard work required to achieve those things is at risk of being undone across the Irish Sea. However, in this difficulty it also becomes easy to think about the challenges to ‘peace’, peace-making, and peace-building. In these uncertain times, can Northern Ireland be truly declared ‘peaceful’? If not, what does this mean for research on the past and the conception of what in Northern Ireland has led to this moment?

Interviews about the past have a role in historic research, even as many of the conversations themselves are clouded by concerns about the future. In many ways, the threat of Brexit to undo the decades of hard work carried out by countless organisations and individuals across Northern Ireland has highlighted how ‘peace’ in the region remains fragile 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the supposed ‘end’ of the conflict. This is the challenge of Writing the ‘Troubles’ in the shadow of Brexit: Is Northern Ireland today ‘sorted’ or is the lid about to be removed once again?

[1] Fletcher, Martin. 2018. ‘Police chief: Ireland border planning is full of holes and threatens fragile peace’. The Sunday Times.

[2] Bradley stated in an interview with The House magazine that she was ‘slightly scared’ of Northern Ireland before being appointed Secretary of State in January and admitted that she was not aware of enduring divisions in the political system before taking up the post. (Whale, Sebastian. 2018. ‘Karen Bradley: “I’m not here for the headlines. I’m here to get the best thing for the country’. The House: Parliament’s Magazine.)

[3] This ‘relative calm’ should be considered in comparison with the violence of the height of the ‘Troubles’. Violence, and its threat, in Northern Ireland continue to be an issue today, as Hamilton made clear.

[4] Hall, Amanda. 2018. Incomplete Peace and Social Stagnation: Shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement. Open Library of Humanities 4(2), 7.

(Image: Sinn Féin Flickr)

Amanda Hall is a PhD Candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, affiliated with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Her dissertation looks at ‘inter-referendum’ Northern Ireland – from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the 2016 Brexit vote – and the role of the voluntary and community sector in confronting the still on-going peace process, including how these organisations have dealt with top-down political tumult and risks to ‘peace’ from a bottom-up perspective. She has previously published work with Irish Political Studies and the Open Library of Humanities.

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