by Jimmy Burns
With Easter past, not short of dark omens, but also regenerating the hopes of men and women of goodwill for a better future, it may be worth reflecting that around this time just over 19 years ago the parties of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments signed an agreement covering a number of issues relating to sovereignty, civil and cultural links and decommissioning of weapons.
The spirit behind the Good Friday agreement was one of compromise and reconciliation and a sense that all the signatories had more to gain from the agreement than from not having one. While there are evident differences between the Irish and Gibraltarian issues it is worth holding up the Good Friday agreement as a model of what can be achieved with imagination and trust. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Irrespective of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom, or part of a united Ireland, the right of “the people of Northern Ireland” to “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both” as well as their right to hold either or both British Irish citizenship was recognized. By the words “people of Northern Ireland” the Agreement meant “all persons born in Northern Ireland and having, at the time of their birth, at least one parent who is a British citizen, an Irish citizen or is otherwise entitled to reside in Northern Ireland without any restriction on their period of residence.”
The agreement thus left the issue of future sovereignty over Northern Ireland open-ended.
The agreement reached was that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority both of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.
The two governments also agreed, irrespective of the position of Northern Ireland:
“… the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”.
Strand 2 dealt with “north-south” issues and institutions to be created between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The North-South Ministerial Council made up of ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland was established “to develop consultation, co-operation and action” in twelve areas of mutual interest. Transfer this framework to Gibraltar and one could be stepping on familiar ground worth revisiting.
I am thinking here of the Cordoba agreement which was an agreement between the Governments of Spain, the United Kingdom and Gibraltar to establish a Tripartite forum for co-operation on Gibraltar. It was signed n 2006 by Spanish Socialist Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, UK Minister for Europe under Tony Blair’s minister or Europe Geoff Hoon, and Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Peter Caruana.
The key agreements were:
• Aviation: Flights between Spain and Gibraltar
• Telecommunications: Spanish recognition of Gibraltar’s IDD telephone code phone, lifting of limits on dialling Gibraltar from Spain and mobile roaming in Spain for Gibraltar mobile phones
• Dispute over pension payments to Spaniards who once worked in Gibraltar resolved
• Spain promised to reduce its border controls and ease movement across the frontier.
An independent appraisal by Peter Gold concluded that “given the fundamental differences in the ultimate objectives of the Forum participants and in particular Spain’s sensitivity to Gibraltar’s status, the agreements may only prove to be a means of managing the Gibraltar ‘problem’ rather than resolving it.”
Spain has continued to insist it will only discuss sovereignty with the United Kingdom and not as part of the Tripartite Forum. And yet it has moved with exemplary self-restraint to defuse the pre-Easter unhelpful blasts by xenophobic hot heads led by the Sun and the Daily Mail.
Madrid has also thankfully not allowed itself to be provoked by Michael Howard who made an implicit comparison between Spain and the Argentina of the military junta in an act of gross political distortion. His comments showed a lack of respect towards a fellow NATO member, and whose bilateral commercial ties with the UK looks are likely to be a key set of cards in ensuring that the Brexit negotiations avoid a hard break between the UK and the EU .
The Spanish political narrative is not set in stone. The current Spanish foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, has ditched the confrontational rhetoric and strategy of his predecessor, José Manuel Garcia Margallo, who unfairly demonised the people of Gibraltar. The PP government now has a fragile minority in government which means being more flexible on certain issues, not least the extent to which the future of Gibraltar can be discussed in practical terms in a strand of cooperation based on mutual interests straddling the Rock and southern Spain, across the border.
Of potential relevance here is the possible election in the coming weeks of the president of the Andalucía regional government, Susana Diaz, as the new leader of the Spanish socialist party PSOE. Her party generally is pragmatic and not nationalistic on the Gibraltar issue, not least when their interest lies in boosting investment and employment in southern Spain.
In an age when western democracies have clearly identified Islamic terrorism and uncontrolled borders as the greatest threat to security, it is simply crazy to see the UK and Spain – two NATO partners whose intelligence cooperation has saved the Rock from acts of terrorism – drawn once again into a phony war over incursions into territorial water by Spanish naval ships.
Tighter ID controls of the Schengen border have provoked pile ups at the frontier – but the problem would be solved by joint policing of all entry points. This would be a step towards necessary cooperation.
Further strands could involve cultural cooperation with Gibraltar’s excellent flagship annual literary festival leading the way. Organisers should plan now for events straddling the frontier, with venues in La Linea , and perhaps other towns in the region, as well as in Gibraltar and a fluid exchange of British and Spanish participants. Spain for its part should be encouraged to reopen with minimum delay the Cervantes Institute in Gibraltar not as a claim on disputed territory but as a recognition that Spanish and English are universal languages that can build bridges rather than walls. I envisage a Gibraltar festival celebrating Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Finally, and crucially, there should be a firm strand focusing on economic development in the region with an acknowledgment that Gibraltar, to quote from the ‘Voice of Gibraltar Business’ – the magazine B2B – “demonstrates the very essence of what the European Union originally set out to achieve: it has fostered stability, tried to promote cross-border understanding, created thousands of jobs, not just for other EU nationals, and generated sustainable growth.”
Let’s drop this talk of Europe ‘punishing Gibraltar’ and with a sober mind look at constructive ways in which Europe can serve the best interest of Spaniards, British, and Gibraltarians.
Europe played a big part in bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland after decades of civil conflict and violence. Gibraltar like Northern Ireland deserves careful handling by Brexiteers and European officials alike, not to mention Spain – and Gibraltarians should stop thinking that their best interests are represented by Sun headline writers.
Jimmy Burns is a journalist and author. He is pictured above adrressing Bayside students during an event at the 2014 Gibraltar International Literary Festival. Read about his work at www.jimmy-burns.com and follow him on Twitter @jimmy_burns