The reality of Brexit fuels fears for peace in Northern Ireland

LARNE, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Deep anger among some pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland over the post-Brexit trade barriers that separated it from the rest of the United Kingdom is stamped along the road from Belfast to the Mainly Protestant port city. of Larne.

A sign saying ‘The EU does not intervene in Ulster’ is seen attached to a light pole in the port of Larne, Northern Ireland, on March 6, 2021. REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne

The posters demanding “No Irish Sea Border”, “NI Scrap Protocol” and “EU Hands Off Ulster” cover much of the 35 km (20 mile) route, their opposition to the New trade deals accentuated by the flight of the British Union Jack dialing every few lamp posts.

A dispute between Britain and the European Union over the implementation of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, designed to avoid a “hard” Irish border, has raised fears that the outrage it has caused among some caught in the middle could spread to the violence. protest in the coming months.

“The only thing that gets results in this country is violence or the threat of violence,” said Alex, a 72-year-old Larne resident who described himself as a “real unionist.” He refused to give his last name.

“We are part of the UK, we were born British, we live British and we will die British.”

The British-led region remains deeply divided along sectarian lines, 23 years after a peace deal largely ended three decades of bloodshed. Many Catholic nationalists aspire to unification with Ireland, while Protestant unionists want to stay in the UK.

Preserving that delicate peace without allowing the UK a back door to the EU single market across the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland was one of the most difficult topics in nearly four years of tortuous talks on the terms of Britain’s departure from the political bloc.

The protocol aimed to solve this problem by keeping Northern Ireland both in the UK customs territory and in the EU single market.

However, the subsequent disruption at Northern Ireland ports to trade in everyday products like cheese sourced from Britain since the UK left the EU orbit on December 31st means the matter is far from resolved.

Unionists say that, in their effort to bypass border controls between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland and thus allay nationalist concerns, the Brexit deal has isolated them from the rest of the UK with an effective border in the Sea of Ireland.


Many trade unionists say they feel that part of their identity is being erased.

This month, Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitary groups, which killed Catholics during years of violence in what they saw as retaliation for aggression by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the Belfast Accord. 1998, also known as Good Friday. Agreement.

While promising peaceful and democratic opposition to the Brexit deal, the groups, which include the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Defense Association and the Red Hand Commando, warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a letter not to “underestimate the force of feeling “.

David Campbell, chairman of the Council of Loyalist Communities, which represents the views of loyalist paramilitaries, said a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis would open unless the EU agreed to significant changes to the agreement.

He said the anger of trade unionists was at the highest level since the 1985 Anglo-Irish accord, which gave Dublin an advisory role in Northern Ireland affairs and sparked mass protests and increased loyalist violence.

“The current leaders of loyalist organizations are under extreme pressure from, say, young Turks who perhaps see an opportunity to go to war on their terms,” ​​he told Reuters.

Britain acknowledged the depth of sentiment on Friday, when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said unionists’ disillusionment with the deal could put the province “in a pretty dangerous place in terms of stability.”


The loyalist groups’ statement should be taken seriously, said Billy Hutchinson, a former Ulster Voluntary Force (UVF) prisoner who is now the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a small loyalist political party with ties to the UVF. .

While Northern Ireland voted between 56% and 44% to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, many trade unionists, who largely supported Brexit, thought it would enhance their British character, according to Hutchinson.

The Johnson government had promised that there would be no new trade barriers within the UK.

“If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I’m absolutely sure people would have taken to the streets,” said Hutchinson, who served 15 years in prison for the murder of two Catholic half-brothers in the 1970s.

“If the political parties on the union side don’t try to avoid that by giving them some kind of hope, some kind of leadership, then there will be violence.”

Few believe that the region will again suffer the bombings and tit-for-tat killings of the “riots,” the period that left more than 3,600 dead. The loyalist groups, although not formally parties to the 1998 agreement, backed the peace agreement and dismantled their weapons in the following years.


However, a repeat of the 2013 protests, when petrol pumps and guns returned to the streets of Belfast after a vote by local councilors to end a centuries-old tradition of waving the British flag from the town hall, was see as a clear possibility.

Although unionist anger is primarily directed at London, nationalists outnumbered in cities like Larne fear they may be the target if the protests turn ugly, according to James McKeown, a local councilor for the largest pro-Irish party, Sinn Fein, formerly the IRA. . political ally.

McKeown grew up in Larne, but in 1998 police told his family to leave after their home was repeatedly shot and petrol bombed. He moved to nearby Carnlough, a picturesque mainly Catholic town where the Irish flag flies in the harbor.

“Unfortunately, in cities like Larne, there is always that element of tension. Have you raised it? Yes it has, ”McKeown said. “There are a lot of people on both sides of the community apprehensive and fearful about where we could go from here.”

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Edited by Alex Richardson


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