Will Northern Ireland’s Hard-Earned Peace Be Shattered by Brexit?

Worries mounting on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

April 10, 2019 5:00 am
A mural supporting the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is seen in north Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 2018. (Getty Images/ AFP PHOTO / Paul Faith)
A mural supporting the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is seen in north Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 2018. (Getty Images/ AFP PHOTO / Paul Faith)
It has been 21 years since the official end of “The Troubles” in Northern Island. For many, the violence seems more like a bit of history than a gruesome struggle over the region’s relationship with Great Britain that regularly made headlines across the planet. This is largely due to the signing of Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) on April 10, 1998, which brought about the truce much of Ireland had so long desired.

But recent developments have been, well, troubling for those watching the region.

It has been claimed that Prime Minister David Cameron (who opposed leaving the European Union) only put forward the Brexit referendum because he was convinced it would be blocked before it reached the public. This conclusion proved spectacularly wrong and triggered his resignation. It also started a pattern of strange Brexit developments that no one fully contemplated, much less accurately predicted.

Now Brexit has all of the United Kingdom on edge, but things may be most complicated for Northern Ireland. Brexit seems a potential threat to peace—indeed, ominous signs are already appearing. Leading to the question: Could a conflict much of the world thought was relegated to the past be about to reignite?

How Ireland Split

The history of England’s conquest of Ireland is a lengthy, complicated, often brutal one. The Normans invaded in the 12th century. The Protestant William of Orange’s defeat of England’s deposed (and Catholic) King James II at the Battle of Boyne in 1690 marked the political ascendance of English Protestants over Irish Catholics.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty partitioned the island in 1921 and the Irish Free State become the Republic of Ireland in 1937. This includes 26 counties, while six in the north remain a part of the United Kingdom. (Leading to the equation 26 + 6 = 1, which often appeared on materials from those arguing all of Ireland should be united.) 

For a place that’s generated a staggering number of Irish Americans, Ireland is surprisingly small, stretching roughly 300 miles at its longest. The Republic of Ireland is overwhelmingly Catholic, numbering to this day nearly 80 percent. (While Catholics remain numerous, the influence of the Church has decidedly weakened in recent years.) Northern Ireland is far more evenly split: The last census in 2011 showed Northern Ireland to be 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic—though potentially, Catholics could outnumber their counterparts by 2021. This is a simplification of the issue, but generally it’s assumed that Northern Ireland’s Protestants want to stay in the United Kingdom and Catholics wish to join the Republic.

The Troubles are generally said to have begun on October 5, 1968. Catholics wanted to march for access to housing, the government forbid the protest, they marched anyway, and were attacked by police in footage seen around the world. In general, protests invariably had the potential to turn dangerous and even deadly.

Three Decades of Troubles

For international audiences, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became the best known part of the 30 years of struggle in Northern Ireland. They drew attention through acts of destruction including a series of bombings in London. Their counterparts include the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a paramilitary group who said they acted on behalf of the Protestant community. (Punk fans may recognize the UDA from the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” Lead singer Johnny Rotten—who was born in London but whose parents emigrated from Ireland—mentions the IRA as well.)

Britain also got its hands decidedly dirty.

Discoveries are still emerging about just how much violence security forces allowed, or even encouraged. This ranged from having “assets” within paramilitary groups whose murders were ignored to allegedly adopting a “shoot-to-kill” policy that essentially led to police executions of unarmed men.  

The bloody struggle resulted in roughly 3,600 deaths over the next 30 years. Granted, the world has seen much bloodier conflicts. (Since 2011, it’s believed the civil war in Syria has killed over 500,000.) The carnage was still horrific and drew global notice.

The result spawned a region perpetually on edge, particularly during the annual July 12 march when members of the Orange Order celebrated that victory in the Battle of the Boyne hundreds of years earlier. The insistence on using long-established routes results in collisions with Catholic neighborhoods and occasional clashes between the groups.

The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement confirmed that—whatever their religion or political affiliations—a majority of those on the island simply wanted the bloodshed to stop.

Peace Proves Popular 

The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland more control over itself (instead of having matters decided by the government in London). To fulfill that autonomy, the Loyalists (or Unionists)/Protestants and Nationalists/Catholics would both have a say in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was signed by British government, the Irish government, and a number of Northern Ireland’s political parties.

When placed on the ballot, it won landslides of support from the public in both Northern Ireland (71% in favor) and the Republic (94%).

The international community showed their enthusiasm by splitting the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize between Northern Ireland’s John Hume and David Trimble.

This isn’t to say it was all lollipops and rainbows forever after—the Assembly has actually collapsed. But the Agreement helped to demilitarize the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and improved relations between Ireland and the U.K. Most importantly, it heavily reduced (though not eliminated) sectarian violence.

There was, however, still a terrible trend in Northern Ireland.

Attempting to Be Northern Irish

The golfer Rory McIlroy was born in Holywood, Northern Ireland. He publicly agonized over having to choose to represent either the U.K. or the Republic of Ireland at the 2016 Olympics, musing, “If I could and there was a Northern Irish team I’d play for Northern Ireland.” He ultimately elected to skip the Olympics rather than decide: “I don’t know the words to either anthem. I don’t feel a connection to either flag. I don’t want it to be about flags; I’ve tried to stay away from that.”

Which was the genius of the Good Friday Agreement. For most practical purposes, you could live as if you were Irish and British, without fully having to embrace or reject either. It made it possible to overlook that people were still largely split. In 2018, a Sky News poll found 51% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland had few or no friends of a different religion. Worryingly, that figure increased to 58% for those aged 18 to 34.

Then 2016 brought Brexit.

A National Decision Against Local Interest

The United Kingdom voted to leave the EU by 51.9% to 48.1%. Northern Ireland did not contribute to that winning total, as Remain easily triumphed: 55.8% for compared to 44.2% against.

I heard about the mounting frustration and even dread personally. Having spent some summers studying theater in Northern Ireland in the pre-Good Friday era, I contacted an old friend from the region to see how she felt about Brexit. Patricia Logue told me that she and her sister were “ranting just this morning about it.” Her sister Emma added, “We’re all pretty frustrated with Brexit at the moment and with our own politicians, if they even deserve that title.” I also reached out to Cahir O’Doherty, a former grad school colleague from Northern Ireland. He directed me to his IrishCentral.com articles “We are not going back to the British border in Ireland” and “Brexit will spell end for UK as Scotland, Northern Ireland, will depart.”

Remain’s victory in Northern Ireland was hardly a shock. Much of Northern Ireland has benefited from the EU, to which they export food and agricultural products. (Indeed, Northern Ireland faces a potential “milk lake” if restrictions stop them from shipping dairy products to their usual buyers.) They’re also due to receive a total of €3.5 billion (roughly $3.9 billion) in farm subsidies and structural grants between 2014 and 2020.

Northern Ireland would be expected to have a limited say in Brexit due to a lack of people: They cast less than 800,000 total votes, compared to over 28 million in England. Yet one of its political parties has had an outsized influence in shaping what Brexit will or will not be.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power. The DUP, in turn, has leveraged this allegiance to make a difficult task damn near impossible.

Busted by the Border   

The Republic of Ireland has decidedly not left the EU. Suddenly, all that work to open the border with Northern Ireland is in jeopardy. The EU (and the Republic in particular) want the border to stay open, while Brexit was largely about closing them. In an attempt to avoid having to leave the EU without any kind of deal, a backstop has been proposed: Essentially, the U.K. would harden all of its borders — except the one dividing Ireland.

This has not gone over well with the DUP. Their primary goal is to ensure Northern Ireland remains part of the U.K. “We will not accept any deal which poses a long-term risk to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom,” DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has declared. 

Meaning there is obstruction to striking a deal with the EU that will harden the Irish border… but there’s also obstruction to Parliament approving a deal that won’t solidify it.

As the British grapple with this dilemma, it’s been revealed that people on the isle of Great Britain feel surprisingly detached from the part of the U.K. located across the Irish Sea.

A Growing Gap

2019 polling by King’s College London found that if Northern Ireland left the U.K., most of Great Britain would accept the loss. Only a third of Britons specifically hoped it would remain in the United Kingdom. In general, the study revealed Britons felt little connection to the place, possibly because three out of four adults had never visited. (This is hardly an epic journey—an online search reveals flights from London to Belfast that last under 90 minutes starting at just $27.)

Thus Northern Ireland could find itself with a small (and shrinking) plurality of the population compelling them to remain in a union with a country that could care less if they just went away.

Which brings us back to one of the most vexing concerns facing Northern Ireland.

The Dangers of Division 

In 2018, it was revealed that Northern Ireland “punishment” attacks had spiked 60 percent in the last four years. Paramilitaries are proving increasingly dangerous. This isn’t really about the IRA going after Protestants or the UDA pursuing Catholics though. It’s generally people attacking their own, nominally to maintain order.

Peter Sheridan of Co-operation Ireland (a group committed to a “peaceful and stable island where people of all backgrounds live and work together for a better future”) has argued they don’t even deserve the term paramilitaries: “Post-1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, thereafter people are, in my view, in organized crime gangs.” He terms their behavior “ordinary criminality,” noting it often involves shakedowns of small businesses.

And let’s be clear—”punishment” doesn’t begin to express how brutal these assaults can be.

In Goodfellas, Henry Hill declares that gangsters “offer protection for people who can’t go to the cops.” This all too often happens with paramilitaries. In the midst of the Troubles, many of Northern Ireland’s Catholics understandably doubted that the police would look out for their best interest. But if you lived in a Protestant neighborhood and noticed the UDA up to something illegal, you’d probably hesitate to speak up yourself.

So communities have grown more isolated, cutting connections that are already tenuous.

What Lies Ahead

Brexit undeniably has the potential to make Northern Ireland more volatile, particularly if the economy takes a hit. As Bono—a man known to write a tune or two about the North—has noted: “Poverty breeds despair” and in turn “Despair breeds violence.” 

Meaning it’s by no means certain anything like the Troubles will return… but it feels more possible. And that’s terrifying. 

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