It did not take long to start talking about Brexit with the Friday lunchtime crowd at Café Retro in the small town of Newry in Northern Ireland. Alongside the enduring disbelief and disappointment with the 2016 referendum’s result, in which contrary to England and Wales, Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union, some had worries of a more personal nature. Among those gathered was a French woman who had lived in Newry for over thirty years and had four children with her partner, who was from the town. She was unimpressed with the UK government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations so far and did not know what her status would be after Brexit, since she and her partner were not married. “The British can be very stubborn,” she said with a small laugh. “They like to be in control.”
The Republic of Ireland border—which everyone in the cafe said they crossed regularly while visiting friends or going shopping—lies just a few miles to the south of Newry. As between all EU member states, the border is currently “frictionless”—goods and people can move across freely. When I crossed into the Republic of Ireland in late January this year, the only visible indicators of a crossing were signs by the side of the road informing drivers that the speed limit was now measured in kilometres instead of miles per hour. Free movement over the border is a legacy of a peace agreement, reached 20 years ago, which ended a three-decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between nationalist groups fighting for a united, republican Ireland and the British Army and police, along with loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 saw most armed groups lay down their weapons, the demilitarisation of the UK-Irish border and the release of former militants from prisons. It was a compromise that recognised the competing claims of the “Republican” and “Unionist” communities (broadly but not exclusively, Catholic and Protestant respectively) to the territory of Northern Ireland.
It is along the Northern Ireland-Republic border, where demarcations have violent and emotive histories, that Britain’s departure from the EU will be physically embodied. “I think they will have to make an exception for here,” the French woman said as she left the cafe. “They can’t put a border back.” With less than a year to go before the UK formally leaves the EU, and with local politics deeply fractured and the national clamour for Brexit rising, how to achieve this demarcation has emerged as one of the thorniest issues in the exit talks. Many are worried that a government divided over negotiations (and which has not ruled out walking away without a deal) does not possess the dexterity and sensitivity required to ensure the compromise reached in 1998 survives Britain’s departure from the EU.
The island of Ireland was formally incorporated into the Union of Great Britain in 1801. Since the seventeenth century, Protestants from Scotland and the north of England settled in the northern province of Ulster , partly to form an outpost loyal to the Crown in a majority Catholic island, which remained largely hostile to the idea of union with Britain. In 1919, Irish nationalists declared independence, and following the subsequent conflict, the British government partitioned the island in 1921 through an administrative exercise drawing on census and religious data—a method they would use in imperial projects elsewhere in the world. The Catholic-majority south became the independent Irish Republic, and most of Protestant-majority Ulster in the north remained in the UK.
Republican and Unionist claims to Northern Ireland escalated into armed conflict in the late 1960s, following widespread protests by Catholics against perceived discrimination at the hands of the majority Protestant community. “The Troubles,” as the conflict came to be known, lasted for 30 years and killed more than 3,600 people. Atrocities were committed by British forces and both Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups. A small booklet published in 1969, “Orange and Green; a Quaker Study of Community Relations in Northern Ireland,” described a province so divided and militarised along centuries-old sectarian lines, displayed in such public and private ways, that it would have baffled readers from elsewhere in the UK. Schools were almost entirely segregated, even following separate sports curricula: rugby, football and cricket for Protestants, and Gaelic football and hurling for Catholics.
Today in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, the streets still show much of the confrontational heraldry and displays of sectarian allegiances, although they now also form part of guided walking tours that recount the history of the Troubles to foreign visitors. The dockyards, dominated by the giant yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard (where the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic was built), are reminiscent of those in other port cities such as Glasgow or Southampton, and they point to the city’s supporting role in the expansion of British commerce and empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The tightly-packed terraces of red-bricked houses could be in Birmingham or Manchester. A bridge in a Unionist neighbourhood has murals that depict soldiers from Ulster climbing out of trenches at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A five minutes’ walk away, however, near the Falls Road, a Republican area, the street signs are in both English and Irish. A homemade, weather-stained poster reading “Brits Out” hangs from a lamp post, and flyers calling on the public not to cooperate with the police are gummed to the poles of traffic lights.
“It was like a war zone,” Michael Colbert said of the pre-1998 border at his office in West Belfast. “For a quarter of a mile on the northern side there were British Army towers, machine gun nests, helicopters.” Colbert was a member of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, an armed nationalist group that fought the British from 1969 but has now disbanded. He served 16 years in prison for his activities and remained a committed Republican, but like many others made the transition from militancy to social work or politics. Sinn Féin, the political vehicle of the nationalist project now has MPs in the Northern Ireland government in Belfast as well as the UK government in Westminster (although the party does not send its MPs to Westminster since it does not recognise London’s authority over Northern Ireland). The IRA’s transition from militancy to diplomacy with the British government has emerged as a model for other insurgents—Colbert claimed that ex-IRA members are regularly approached by groups from around the world for advice on how to enter into negotiations with governments they have been fighting, including, he said, from among the Maoist movement in Nepal.
Colbert was released from prison in 1993. He told me that when the “trickle of released political prisoners became a flood” following the 1998 peace agreement, he began working with Coiste, a Belfast-based organisation advocating for the rights of former political prisoners. Those convicted under the anti-terror legislation drafted during the conflict (whether for Republican or Unionist-aligned paramilitary activities) can still legally be denied employment on the basis of their conviction, and they face a host of other impediments to their reintegration. Campaigning for the rehabilitation of former political prisoners was one of the few issues where ex-members of Republican and Unionist paramilitary groups shared common ground, Colbert said. Relations between the two groups on this issue were “cordial” although “difficult.” “People think that it’s sorted,” he said, referring to the conflict. “But not for those of us still on the receiving end of discriminatory legislation.” Regarding the work Coiste does with ex-paramilitaries, Colbert said “the EU is the group that enables us to do it.” Centralised funding from Brussels has “allowed the British government not to be up front” about paying for the rehabilitation of ex-paramilitary groups, particularly the IRA, which was responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks on British soil.
The current impasse over the border is over the crossing of goods, not people (inhabitants of Northern Ireland and the Republic will retain the unrestricted travel rights granted in the 1998 peace agreement). So far, no definitive solution has been proposed that answers the demand for a border “hard” enough to mark British jurisdiction over customs and goods, but “soft” enough to preserve the open-ended compromise over Northern Ireland’s status. Talks between London and Brussels have recently reconvened on this issue (after making very little headway in their first round) and are expected to report in May. One proposed solution that would allow goods to be checked and registered electronically at the source, rather than en route, would in theory—according to the government—ensure unrestricted movement across the border.
How feasible such an arrangement would be on the ground remains uncertain, however. The Irish Central Border Area Network, which works to foster cooperation and exchange between communities along the Northern Ireland-Republic border, is currently conducting a survey of attitudes towards Brexit among border communities, including opinions on the feasibility of proposed technical solutions such as vehicle licence-plate recognition and the surveillance of mobile data. In April, I spoke to Shane Campbell, ICBAN’s Chief Executive Officer, who told me he hoped the findings would be available by June, and that they would feed into discussions on solutions for the border. For the moment, he said “there are more questions than answers.”
A previous proposal for the border was to make a new agreement that, for customs purposes, would separate Northern Ireland from the UK, and allow it to continue trading with the EU as before. Although such an arrangement would bypass the need for any new border demarcations, it could fuel tensions concerning territorial sovereignty. The idea was scuppered by Northern Ireland’s most powerful Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is currently in an alliance with the governing Conservative party at Westminster. The DUP and other unionist groups believe a continued customs union with the EU, and new regulatory barriers between Belfast and the rest of Britain, would trigger a drift away from the UK and towards reunification with the Republic—a possibility enshrined in the 1998 agreement; working towards which is the policy of Sinn Féin. For the nearly one-million-strong Unionist community in Northern Ireland, with their cherished links to the UK and long-held fears of living as a minority in a united Ireland, this would be untenable. In a recently aired BBC documentary, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would “probably have to move” if a referendum ever produced a united Ireland, although she added that “it’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
Complicating things further, Sinn Féin and the DUP have not sat in the devolved assembly in Belfast for over a year. Allegations of discrepancies and overspending in a DUP government scheme promoting renewable energy prompted a Sinn Féin-led walkout in December 2016. Since, government budgets have gone unallocated, local government projects have stalled and both parties have come in for scathing criticism for their brinkmanship. Subsequent disputes over an Irish language act have further tightened the deadlock, John Manley, political correspondent at the Irish News in Belfast, told me. He believed there “were irreconcilable divisions at the moment” between the two parties.
The London-Brussels negotiations themselves have produced “nothing but rhetoric so far, no solutions by where the UK leaves the EU and maintains a frictionless border,” added Manley. It is still not clear how UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise that there will be no reintroduction of a hard border can be accommodated with the DUP’s fervent opposition to Northern Ireland being treated any differently than the rest of the UK. An influential cabal of government ministers and a bellicose right-wing press opposed to any continued customs union with the EU will further constrain room for manoeuvre, and as the UK cuts its EU moorings and prepares to sail back into the sun, the margin for error in how it demonstrates its newly-won sovereignty is narrow. Colbert, the ex-IRA member, believed that any new infrastructure denoting the presence of the British state at the Northern Ireland-Republic border would antagonise the dissident Republican groups who did not sign up to the 1998 peace agreement. “As soon as you have a physical manifestation of the border, then you are announcing a political difference,” he said. “They’ll have to be protected because someone’s going to be attacking them …This is an inevitability.”
Ross Adkin is a freelance writer based in Delhi.