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When the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the European Union in June 2016, little attention was paid to the country’s only land border with the E.U. This consequential border separates Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K, from the Republic of Ireland, which is an E.U. member state. 

It was this border that repeatedly delayed Brexit, as negotiations over the failed “Irish backstop” measure saw the demise of former Prime Minister Theresa May’s government last year

This was the latest development in the contentious history of the Irish border that has raged on for centuries. Looming in the minds of the people in Northern Ireland today are the Troubles — the three decades of bitter violence between unionists, who tend to identify as Protestant and who wish to remain part of the U.K., and nationalists, who tend to identify as Catholic and who wish to be part of the Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, also called the Belfast Agreement, formalized a process to bring peace to the region. 

Now, Brexit raises questions about whether this peace can stand by bringing those multidimensional, long-standing and difficult questions of identity in Northern Ireland to the fore: Catholic vs. Protestant, Irish vs. British, nationalist vs. unionist, republican vs. loyalist.

When Ireland and the U.K. were both part of the EU, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland became little more than an afterthought as peace flourished in the north in the past two decades.

But, now the prospect of that border becoming a meaningful delineation between the UK and Northern Ireland on one side and Ireland and the EU on the other, has forced the Northern Irish to consider: What does it mean to be Irish? To be British? To be European? And could one solution to these vexing questions in the longer term be unifying Ireland? 

Self sufficiency A porous border

The rhetoric surrounding the Brexit referendum primarily focused on issues of immigration and the economy and centered on England’s interests. The outcome of the referendum did not reflect the sentiments of a majority in Northern Ireland — about 56% of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the E.U. According toColin Harvey, a professor in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, “[The Irish border was] massively neglected before the vote, but then came front and center after the vote.”

While the border has caused headaches for politicians in Westminster, for those who live and work between border regions it is simply a part of daily life.

Anne Marie Conlon, Head of Economic Development for Donegal County Council, said, “I live in Lifford here and my kids go to school in Strabane and they play football in Strabane.” Strabane in Northern Ireland is separated from Lifford in the Republic of Ireland by the River Foyle. A bridge connects the two towns. “I cross that border maybe seven to eight times every day just doing my usual things,” Conlon said. 

When driving across the border, apart from imperceptibly different signage, it is hard to notice that one has crossed into another country. “[The border] is defined by the people and it is defined by the interactions of the economies,” said Eunan Quinn, Senior Planner for Donegal City Council. 

With Brexit, concerns about a hard border have resurfaced. Mutual E.U. membership brought the U.K.’s and Ireland’s trade and customs regimes under a common market, eliminating the need for internal checks and customs posts at the border. Brexit —leading to Northern Ireland’s departure from the E.U. — may mean a closure of this open economic border. 

“The fact that there would be a border there, customs stopping you every time or checking you, it just doesn’t make for a good life or a good place to be,” Conlon said. “To go back to a time where there was physical infrastructure is probably something people are very scared about.”

Under the current Brexit withdrawal terms negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and the E.U., there will effectively be a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in the Irish Sea, instead of between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Although it remains part of the U.K. customs territory, Northern Ireland would align with many E.U. regulations. 

Self sufficiency Renewed discussions on sovereignty

The Republic of Ireland and the U.K. have had a shared history of E.U. membership since both countries acceded on January 1, 1973. Those who supported the Good Friday Agreement operated under the presumption that the two countries would remain members of the E.U.

Now, the people of Northern Ireland are contending with new conceptions of sovereignty after Brexit.

Peter Sheridan, former senior police officer in Northern Ireland and current Chief Executive Officer of Belfast-based charity Co-operation Ireland, said, “Most Northern nationalists who voted for the Good Friday Agreement were happy to be Northern Irish within the context of a wider Europe. What they weren’t voting for was to be Northern Irish within the context of the United Kingdom.”

Now, some unionists view Johnson’s proposal for a potential customs border in the Irish Sea—which divides their territory from the rest of the U.K.—as a “betrayal” from England

Meanwhile, some nationalists perceive continued Northern Irish membership in the U.K. as untenable and Brexit as an opportunity for the future unification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Derry-based businessman Garvan O’Doherty believes there will be a united Ireland by 2030. O’Doherty voted Leave, unlike most nationalists. “I voted against the status quo,” he said, “because I felt the political system as it was wasn’t what we needed, which was a united Ireland.”

Regardless of support for or opposition to Brexit, the conversation around Irish unification has gained traction. That’s an outcome long pushed by Sinn Féin, an Irish republican political party historically linked to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, gaining popularity in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Raymond McCartney, former Sinn Féin politician and hunger striker while he was a volunteer with the IRA,said that people who appreciate the benefits conferred by E.U. membership may now back unification. He said, “There are people now who are talking about Irish unity who have never talked about it before.”

Former Derry Mayor and Sinn Féin politician Michaela Boyle noted that Brexit presents an opportune moment to engage with unionists about a “new Ireland.” “It’s not just about the orange and the green,” she said, referencing colors often associated with the Protestant and Catholic communities, respectively. “It can never be about that.”

Self sufficiency Plurality of identities

Brexit has challenged the meaning of Northern Irish identity.

The political ascension of Sinn Féin in the recent Irish elections and renewed discussions about Irish unification raise broader questions about Northern Ireland’s multitude of identities: Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist, Irish and British.

Ultimately, these identifying labels are used to represent the most visible root of division— varying conceptions of national identity.

For some, Brexit and the subsequent calls for Irish unification have inflamed divisions.

Jonathan Burgess, a Protestant playwright from Londonderry, is grappling with the future of his border town in the aftermath of Brexit. Burgess also believes Brexit will undoubtedly lead to Irish unification, a daunting prospect for many Protestants who would be incorporated into the Republic’s majority Catholic population.

Standing among the pews of his hometown’s historic St. Columb’s Cathedral, Burgess feels his familial ties to Londonderry and involvement with the British loyalist group the Apprentice Boys have been increasingly unrepresented on the changing Irish island.

“Brexit is bad. Brexit will reunify Ireland. And it will make a mess,” Burgess said. “My wife and I will leave here. Cultural identity is important, but when it gets to the stage that it ruins your life, it’s a different thing.”

Clear reminders of division can also be seen while driving through Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland. “Peace walls,” remnants of the Troubles’ violent legacy, meander through the city, segregating Protestant unionist from Catholic nationalist neighborhoods. The bold iconographies adopted by the murals draw on international examples of friction such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and even the American civil rights movement.

The government of Northern Ireland currently plans to remove the “peace walls” by 2023

Kevin Brassell is an American who works for Co-operation Ireland, a Belfast-based charity that works to promote intercommunication between all communities. A local cab driver said to him, “’Look, the physical peace walls mean absolutely nothing. We have to get the mental peace walls out of our heads before anything productive happens between our communities.’”

To remove these “’mental peace walls,’” Michelle Menice of Co-operation Ireland works in classrooms to create what she describes as “a safe space to explore differences and break any insularity around communities.” 

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have gotten Brexit “done,”the future E.U.-U.K. relationship remains largely unclear ahead of the transition period’s expiration at the end of 2020, and more uncertainty has been introduced by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Johnson’s government announced it would introduce border checks in stages in 2021, according to the Associated Press and the BBC, in an effort to ease burdens on businesses already suffering during the economic downturn. The move came just weeks after concerns were raised about whether Johnson’s plan for a Brexit border in the Irish Sea could be implemented by year’s end.

Though the current withdrawal agreement pledges to avoid a hard border, the people of Northern Ireland still face difficult questions around how Brexit will intersect with matters of sovereignty, identity, and more.

More: Britain’s exit from the European Union has arrived. Now what?

In Northern Ireland, finding common ground across communities, despite the upheaval wrought by Brexit, is still important. “We have the same shared history,” said former Mayor Boyle. “We all come from one place: the conflict.”

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2020/07/05/northern-ireland-brexit-renews-discussions-sovereignty-identity/3074060001/

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