All eyes are currently – and understandably – on the bitter and still unfolding war in Ukraine.
The first anniversary of the conflict recently passed with, sadly, no sign that it will end any time soon.
But it is not just Ukraine that should be of concern to political leaders, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many in the UK and Europe had hoped – and assumed – that violence in a country much closer to home had been consigned to the distant past.
But, sadly, it appears this may not be entirely the case in Northern Ireland where, just this week, the terror threat level has been raised to “severe” after recent New IRA attacks.
MI5, the British security service, has raised the threat level from “substantial” to “severe,” meaning an attack is regarded as highly likely.
The move follows a rise in dissident Republican activity, including a gun attack last month that left a police officer fighting for his life.
This comes with Joe Biden, the U.S President, due to make a long-awaited and landmark trip to Belfast next month to celebrate 25 years of peace.
On Wednesday (28 March) Members of the European Parliament also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which was designed to bring 30 years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland to an end.
This act of statecraft, it appeared, paved the way for the transformation of Northern Ireland by laying a new foundation for a safer, more prosperous and inclusive future for all.
However, the 25th commemorations come just weeks after a police officer was shot and seriously wounded in Northern Ireland, in an attack blamed on the dissident Republican group known as the New IRA and the raised level follows “an increase in levels of activity relating to Northern Ireland-related terrorism which has targeted police officers.
All parties hope that current tensions can be defused so that, truly, the dark days of what became known as The Troubles – a 30-year conflict which claimed the lives of over 3,000 people – will never be repeated.
But it is not just the current security situation in the province that has given cause for concern of late. The same might be said for the political landscape, with uncertainty about the so-called Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol only just now starting to fade.
It has been almost 7 years since the UK referendum to exit the European Union but hopes are high that the agreement recently brokered between the EU and UK – known as the Windsor Agreement – can deliver the smooth flow of trade within the UK (and protects Northern Ireland’s place in the Union).
Socialist MEP Pedro Silva Pereira,the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, says, “While it has not always been an easy or pleasant path to get here, we are hopeful that the Windsor Framework lays the foundations for the building blocks of a new relationship with the UK.”
The so-called Windsor Framework is a new joint understanding that allows more flexible and more effective implementation of the trading arrangements for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, so that both the EU’s much-vaunted Single Market and the Good Friday Agreement can be fully safeguarded.
Jessika Roswall, Minister for EU Affairs of Sweden, says the Framework will benefit people and businesses in Northern Ireland and should allow the EU and the UK “to open a new chapter in our relations.”
Worryingly, the terror threat level in Northern Ireland may have suddenly been raised but the next few days will still see numerous high level commemorations of the Good Friday Agreement.
Also known as the Belfast Agreement, the GFA was signed on 10 April 1998 by the British and Irish governments, and confirmed by referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland in May the same year. The agreement established devolved political power-sharing structures for the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland, and brought the 30-year period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland to an end.
In Wednesday’s commemorative ceremony, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola hailed the Good Friday agreement (GFA) as one “which has instilled harmony between people”, adding that there were few examples in history of a “peoples’ peace agreement”.
People’s lives in Ireland have been transformed thanks to the agreement, Metsola said, adding that throughout the years preceding 1998, the European Parliament had provided a platform for the dialogue that led to peace.
European Council President Charles Michel said the GFA is a “remarkable achievement” steered by visionary leaders who did not fear compromise. It echoes the Treaty of Rome in 1957, he believes, citing how the tragedy of World War II inspired Europeans to build a unifying spirit and to draw borders that do not divide. He added that the two historical events are couched in the same ideal – “making the most of the richness of diversity.”
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen believes that “25 years ago, the impossible came true” and the Belfast Agreement “opened a new era of cooperation and was a new beginning”.
Since then giant steps forward have been taken, she states.
MEPs, at their sitting in Brussels this week, celebrated the GFA as a historic development that remains essential to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. They reiterated that the Agreement was central to the EU’s negotiating of a post-Brexit relationship with the UK, as was the prevention of a hard border emerging on the island of Ireland. The EU, they said, should not just be a passive spectator to the GFA.
Beyond Brussels, the exact date for President Biden’s showpiece visit to Northern Ireland has not yet been announced – April 11 has been mooted – but it will top off a week of events to mark the GFA’s 25th anniversary.
Other architects of the deal including the former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks between unionists and republicans that ultimately resulted in the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries laying down their arms, Tony Blair and the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who shepherded the deal over the line, will also attend.
Despite the recent and disturbing increase in violence, all will be hoping that, together with UK Premier Rishi Sunak’s recent deal with the EU, the 25th anniversary will help further cement a settled and peaceful future for the province.