Brexit impact in Northern Ireland: When peace is at stake

iron gate in Northumberland street separates Republican area of Falls and Loyalist area of Shankill in Belfast,Northern Ireland. [Federico Zovadelli/Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Voices from the regions: Brexit impact along the Irish border.

Time is running out as the UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March, and an orderly withdrawal is not yet secured. EURACTIV has travelled to Northern Ireland, where Brexit is more than a political or economic issue – it is a challenge for peace. 

Even though Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, it will leave the bloc with the rest of the UK at the end of March. In a widely-divided post-conflict society, Brexit has only increased the polarisation.

For decades, Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic of Ireland were at the heart of a sectarian conflict between Catholic Republicans – defending the reunification of Ireland- and mostly Protestant Loyalists, in favour of remaining in the UK-.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement put an end to the thirty years of conflict and provided the divided society with the possibility of choosing whether they felt British, Irish or both.

The agreement, together with the membership of the European Union, eased the tension and allowed the island to turn the border from a battlefield into a source of opportunities and cooperation, from a barrier into a gateway. 

Now, Brexit has challenged that, particularly in case of a ‘no deal’.

“This isn’t just about trade and tariffs,” Peter Sheridan, a former police officer during the Troubles turned CEO of Co-Operation Ireland, a peacebuilding charity, told EURACTIV, “This, here, in Northern Ireland, is about identity.”

A barrier to peace

Wherever you try to put a border – the Irish sea or in the landmark between Northern Ireland and the Republic- “you create the possibility in peoples’ minds of a semi-detached status for their community,” Sheridan pointed out.  

As the UK is about to leave the Union, the Republicans in Northern Ireland feel they are being pulled away from Ireland. A no-deal Brexit could be disastrous in this sense.

Members of the Republican Sinn Fein have asked for a referendum on the reunification of Ireland. The provision for the vote is included in the Good Friday Agreement, intended as a potential solution for the constitutional issues that remain to be tackled between the two communities.

However, in Dublin, there is no appetite for that debate as they do not think the conditions have quite been met.

The Irish government is aware that, while this is probably the only historic opportunity to carry on with the reunification, opening up that discussion would only increase the tension Brexit has re-created. They feel that preserving the status quo might be the best way to ensure peace.

Unionist, of course, agree. “The last thing we need at the minute given the current difficulties is a border poll, which will only further divide the communities,” Tom Roberts, director of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre, told EURACTIV.

Republican voices, though, claim that many Unionist would value their European citizenship over their British one if asked, now that the UK is leaving the EU. But Gordon Lyons, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), disagrees.

“People here will continue to be comfortable with the constitutional status quo, which is Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom,” Lyons said.

However, Unionists are concerned about the potential implications of Brexit as well. They claim the backstop is a threat to their own identity too.

The backstop is an emergency solution included in the current Withdrawal Agreement that would see Northern Ireland staying aligned to some rules of the EU single market, while the whole of Great Britain would be part of a customs union.

Although it would only be triggered if London and Brussels are unable to find an agreement on their future relationship by the end of the two-year transition period after Brexit, Unionists oppose this solution because it would mean separating Northern Ireland from Britain “constitutionally and economically”, Lyons argued.

Life at the border

Belleek is a small village in Northern Ireland, in the westernmost corner of the UK, the final frontier, only separated from the Republic of Ireland by a small stone bridge. 

The place was heavily affected by the Troubles – the Carlton Hotel in the town was the second most bombed site after the hotel Europa in Belfast- but for the past twenty years, Belleek has lived in peace and people crossed daily from one side to other, almost without realising.

However, villagers fear Brexit might change that.

“If there is a hard Brexit, it is going to be devastating; but even if it is what they call a soft Brexit, it is not going to be good for the people here living on the border,” said John Feely, a councillor for the Sinn Fein in Belleek.

Belleek is only one of the 208 crossing points along the 500-kilometre border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. During the conflict, police and military would patrol the area and bombs and shootings would regularly target the area.

When people in Northern Ireland hear someone in Brussels, London or Dublin talking about a “hard border,” that is what comes to their minds. 

“If they bring back a hard border, they will bring back the guns,” a resident of Belleek who would rather not be identified told EURACTIV. 

The concerns over a potentially violent reaction to Brexit are common, particularly in the border areas. In a post-conflict zone, characterised by a strong division between two communities, talking about bringing back the fences is a source of deep anxiety and nervousness.

During the conflict, the area was heavily militarised. Today, there is barely a sign that warns you of the border crossing. Whatever the outcome of the Article 50 negotiation, the consequences will be more strongly felt here.

“I would say that violence is not inevitable. It is a matter of choice by people. But having said that, the history of this place is that the border has always been a source of social conflict,” Sheridan explained.

“We can’t build a policy on the basis of terrorism,” the former police officer insisted. However, he admitted, and here is the difficulty, that politicians need to avoid giving terrorists “any potential that allows them to grow their organisations”.

Here, avoiding a physical border is key. “You never start with the intention of having twelve army watch and helicopters basis but it is how security builds up, in response to events or attacks,” Sheridan explained.

“It is not now, or next year or the year after, it is how it looks in ten years’ time,” he stressed.

Colum Eastwood, a leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and representative for the Derry-Londonderry, once at the heart of the Troubles, shared this concern.

“What we saw during the Troubles was 20,000 British troops trying to secure the border. They couldn’t do it but they had a huge impact on the daily lives of people here. We just have to be very careful,” Eastwood said.

As the Irish border becomes an external border of the EU, the psychological impact of building any form of a barrier for a population that was devastated by decades of armed conflict, is incalculable.

For many people, any physical facility would be “a reminder of painful, traumatic experiences and as a symbol of regression in cross-border relations and, more broadly, in relations between the UK and Ireland,” a study of the Queen’s University of Belfast revealed.

EU is a driving force in supporting peace in Northern Ireland

Peter used to be a policeman during ‘the Troubles’, while Tom served 13 years in the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary group. Now, both help former combatants reintegrate into Northern Irish society. A project like this would have been almost impossible without the EU’s support. 

Brexit: a threat to peace?

Whoever has walked down the streets of Belfast or Derry-Londonderry would have seen the legacy of the conflict that remains visible.

The memories of the Troubles are carved in the walls painted with murals that honour the members of the Independent Republican Army (IRA) in the Catholic neighbourhoods, or the paramilitary loyalist groups in the protestant hoods.

The fences that used to separate the Protestant from the Catholic neighbourhoods are still partially in place, physically but also psychologically. In spite of the efforts of the past twenty years, Northern Ireland remains a divided society and Brexit has come as a threat to the fragile equilibrium.

“The polarisation of society into British and Irish, as a result of Brexit, could do harm to all that has been done until now,” said Jane Morrice, member of the Economic and Social Committee and former member of the Assembly for Northern Ireland, who contributed to the peace process.

The current political situation is a reflection of that polarisation as two years after the elections, the political forces in the Assembly have been unable to form a government.

Brexit has come as “an unwelcome layer of complexity on top of the complexities we already have,” said Tom Roberts, director of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre and former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group.

“The peace process is all about momentum and moving forward, not looking back. And unfortunately, Brexit has that chance of making us move back,” Joh Feely (Sinn Fein) said.

Some in Northern Ireland feel abandoned by London and accuse British politicians of underestimating the impact of Brexit on peace in the region. They thank the EU and Dublin for their commitment to preserving the Good Friday Agreement.

Others, however, accuse the Irish government of being ‘hardline’ in their defence of the backstop and claim they have fallen under the pressure of the Sinn Fein, whose ultimate objective is a united Ireland.

Even in their perception of the Article 50 negotiation, Northern Irish people are divided.

The fear of violence

More than 3,000 people were killed and thousands were injured during more than thirty years of the Troubles. As recently as in January, there was a car bomb attack in Derry-Londondonderry, luckily, without victims.

“None of us believes we could ever go back to those days,” Jane Morrice said.

“The conditions that led to the conflict back in 1969 and 1970 no longer pertain,” Sinn Fein councillor and former member of the IRA, Seanna Walsh, said, “that whole sort of background has changed completely.”

While Walsh considered that there are some issues related to the conflict’s legacy that still need to be solved, he does not believe the conditions are there to justify an armed response, “but who can say what’s going to happen in the future?”

Tom Roberts, director of the Ex-Prisoners Interpretative Centre and former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, has a similar position.

“I don’t see any pieces of evidence, certainly within the Unionist-loyalist community, of an appetite for a return to violence,” Roberts told EURACTIV. “Having said that, it is wise not to be complacent because, when I was a young man, many years ago, I didn’t think we would slide into violence either,” he pointed out.

“We need to be careful about how we deal with the current situation.”

The threat of a violent response in case the circumstances change as a result of Brexit remains a possibility, not only because of a ramped up polarisation in the society but also because of the change to the status quo that would come with the UK leaving the EU.

“I think it is up to the politicians to make sure it doesn’t happen again… And that takes strong leadership and maybe we don’t have strong good leadership,” said Cathy Wolfs of the women’s organisation the Next Chapter.

Violence is always a possibility, Councillor Feely admitted. “It is going to be up to people like myself and other community leaders to ensure that no matter what kind of Brexit comes, we keep a lid on it,” he agreed.

“The peace process took a very long time to build,” Colum Eastwood recalled, and Brexit threatens to bring it all back. “We don’t want to overstate that, but it is a possibility. And why would we even risk it?” Eastwood wondered.

Patricia McCormack, a resident in Carrickfergus, was brought up Protestant and forced to move out of Belfast during the Troubles. She is now part of a cross-community organisation in her town of residence and defends the need to keep the peace that has been built over the years.

“We’ve come so far in 15 years… We don’t want to go backwards. We want to move forward.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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