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As Britain plans its exit from EU, Ireland proves a sticking point

Why We Wrote This

Most of the talk in Britain amid the Brexit debate has been about how the fate of the Irish border will affect the United Kingdom. But no less important is the way in which Brexit could change the island of Ireland.

Peter Morrison/AP
Leaders of Northern Ireland political party Sinn Fein knocked down a mock wall on the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border as part of a demonstration against potential future border checks, near Newry, Northern Ireland, Jan. 26.

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When Britain debated Brexit before the 2016 referendum, there was little mention of what it would mean for Ireland. But Ireland’s border has become a focal point of the negotiations between Britain and the EU – even though consideration for the issues that Brexit raises for Ireland remain limited in Britain. The process seems certain to leave a lasting scar on relations between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which have sunk to their lowest level in decades.

Today, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is only a line on a map. But Brexit, if it goes badly, could reintroduce border checks. That would stymie trade and movement, and worse, could reignite the violence that ended in 1998.

Brexit may also inadvertently speed up the reunification of Ireland, by bringing Northern Ireland’s attention back to the topic at a time when the republic has a better economy than the North – and isn’t threatened by the economic effect of Brexit. “There are people thinking to themselves, ‘you know what, a united Ireland couldn’t be any worse than this,” says Bill Rolston, emeritus professor at Ulster University.

A corner just down the road from Danny Morrison’s home in west Belfast used to house a police station barracks, a target of repeated bombings during the Troubles. Now it’s gone, replaced by a grassy plot and a cluster of young birch trees. An hour away, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is visible only on a map. 

Since the changes brought about by the Belfast Agreement that ended the Troubles, nationalists “no longer feel vanquished” in Northern Ireland, says Mr. Morrison, a former provisional IRA volunteer who spent years in prison. Polarization over the status of Northern Ireland became less pressing as people focused on more immediate concerns. 

Despite his reservations over the compromise required, Mr. Morrison supported participating in the regional power-sharing government, known as Stormont. But because of the way British and Northern Irish unionist politicians have handled Brexit, and due to an unrelated scandal that collapsed the government two years ago, that has changed. “I’ve become disillusioned with Stormont,” he says. 

His is just one example of the way Brexit has rekindled Irish tensions that had been pushed to the background in two decades of peace.

Less than three weeks before the deadline for the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union, the question of what exactly will happen on March 29 is entirely up in the air. But whatever unfolds, the process seems certain to leave a lasting scar on relations between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, which have sunk to their lowest level in decades.

“The border is nearly 100 years old, and there was a feeling 100 years ago that Ireland was a pawn in English politics,” says Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “For some there’s a feeling that history is repeating itself.”

The backstop

When Britain debated Brexit before the 2016 referendum, there was little mention of what it would mean for Ireland, where the U.K. has its only land border with the EU.

That border was a militarized zone during “The Troubles,” the conflict that roiled Northern Ireland for more than three decades, when Irish nationalist militias fought British forces and loyalist militias with the goal of making Northern Ireland part of the Republic. But it ended with the Belfast Agreement in 1998, which brought peace to the island and opened up travel and trade between north and south.

Today, the 310-mile-long partition is only a line on a map. One of the few indications you’ve driven into Northern Ireland from the Republic is that the speed limit signs are in miles instead of kilometers. The ease of movement is possible in part because both countries are members of the EU customs union and single market, so goods going between the two countries don’t need to be checked.

Brexit threatens to change that. British Prime Minister Theresa May is in the midst of making last-minute attempts to convince lawmakers to support the deal she negotiated with the EU laying out the terms of Brexit, which comes up for a vote in Parliament on Tuesday. If the deal is voted down, as is currently expected, one of the key reasons why is likely to be the “Irish backstop” – a provision that could keep the U.K. more closely connected to the EU for an indefinite period.

The backstop is meant to act as an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border if a larger agreement is not in place by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. An open border is essential to the maintenance of both the Belfast Agreement and of the numerous social and economic relationships that have developed since the end of the Troubles between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

But British Brexiters have refused to accept Ms. May’s plan for a backstop for fear that it could prevent the U.K. from ever truly leaving EU regulations. And the Democratic Unionist Party, a Protestant Northern Irish party that Ms. May relies on to prop up her minority government, has been similarly opposed, arguing it would subject Northern Ireland to different rules than the rest of the U.K.

English miscalculations?

That’s left the U.K. on the brink of leaving the EU without an agreement, which could mean that border checks are once again put in place. Many on both sides of the border worry that border infrastructure could attract attacks by dissidents unhappy with the peace process, and that the violence could quickly escalate. 

In Britain and among Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit community, much of the blame for the backstop impasse has fallen on Ireland. To many in the Republic, it appears the English ruling class either do not understand the effects Brexit could have in Ireland, or do not care.

“What’s returned is the distrust that was very much a part of the history of Anglo-Irish relations,” says Professor Ferriter. “We felt that probably that had been solved through the last 20 years, through the peace process and through London and Dublin governments working very closely together in dialogue and including the Belfast government. There’s a return to a lack of trust and accusations of bad faith, and accusations of, almost a return of a willful ignorance on the part of some English politicians.” 

English politicians made two miscalculations in regards to Ireland and Brexit, says Edward Burke, director of the Center for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism at the University of Nottingham: They overestimated their own negotiating leverage with the EU, and also overestimated Ireland’s dependence on the U.K.

Professor Burke says the British expected Ireland to be forced to alter its relationship within the EU in order to accommodate Brexit and avoid a hard border, rather than the other way around. “That’s a diplomatic miscalculation, not necessarily to do with malevolence,” he says. “I see this as diplomatic carelessness, not as callous malevolence toward Irish affairs. It’s perhaps an asymmetric lack of knowledge, in that Ireland is a small country, and a poor strategy.”

‘A united Ireland couldn’t be any worse than this’

Whatever the intent, the result is that tensions that had been tamped down for 20 years are resurfacing.

The Belfast Agreement pushed into the future the issue of whether Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic, by recognizing the aspiration for unity but saying it could only be decided with the consent of its citizens. If a majority on both sides of the border vote for reunification, then Northern Ireland could join the Republic. By removing the border, it dissipated a day-to-day reminder of Irish division and allowed unionists and nationalists to work together on more immediate public concerns.

But Brexit has reversed that, says Sam McBride, political editor of the Belfast newspaper the News Letter. “It has brought constitutional politics, orange and green politics, politics of Irish unity, it has brought those to the fore in a way they had really gone into the background.”

And Brexit has increased the likelihood of Irish reunification. Demographic changes had always put that possibility on the horizon – the Catholic population, which tends to vote nationalist, is increasing, and the Protestant population, which leans unionist, is decreasing. But for some, societal and economic shifts on both sides of the border are making a future with Ireland more appealing than a future with Britain.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 56 percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, and there is a widespread desire for the border to remain open. A government report recently estimated that a no-deal Brexit would shrink Northern Ireland’s economy by 9 percent, and could cause many businesses to fail. In the past, the Republic of Ireland’s economy was poor, and a deterrent to reunification – but now it’s strong. Many young people in Northern Ireland are upset with its conservative social stances, including bans on abortion and gay marriage – both of which Ireland has legalized in recent years.

“There are people thinking to themselves, ‘You know what, a united Ireland couldn’t be any worse than this,’ ” says Bill Rolston, emeritus professor at Ulster University. “It’s not people committed to a nationalist consciousness all of a sudden.”

For Mr. Morrison, it’s apparent that such a change would not be easy. “I realize that a united Ireland that I fought for and went to prison for is not going to be that romantic vision. And I am prepared for that,” he says. “The most important thing to me is we get sovereignty and the British stop interfering in our affairs.”

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