Britain prepares for Brexit: Old wounds, religious tensions simmer in Northern Ireland as UK prepares to leave EU

Editor's note: This is the third in a four-part series of reports on Brexit from the UK, leading up to the EU elections on 23 May. It will relay voices of everyday British folk on the coming departure from Europe.

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In the town I loved so well…

.. sang the legendary Irish balladier Luke Kenny of the folk Irish band Dubliners after Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in Northern Ireland in 1972:

There was music there in the Derry air,
Like a language that we could all understand….
But when I returned, how my eyes have burned
To see how a town could be brought to its knees

Seen but dismissed like a morning dream by politicians in Westminster is the real possibility that the Brexit ship — now sailing fitfully for three years — may run aground on the “hard” border question in Northern Ireland. And if it does, the consequences for the United Kingdom can be devastating. It is on this single question of a no-border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that a potential challenge to the current contours of the country lies. True, all parties agree that there should not be a “hard” border between the two countries. But there the consensus ends. Nobody knows how this would be possible if Brexit, voted for by the British public in the 2016 referendum, is to go ahead. In Westminster, as politicians intrigue over their individual futures, Northern Ireland is too remote to matter.

In the 1960s and well into the 90s, when secessionist violence claimed many lives in Northern Ireland, there was a “hard”, international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a former colony which won independence from the British in 1922. In fact, Dublin was the scene of the first Bloody Sunday massacre (21 November, 1920) by British troops which caused widespread outrage at home and abroad. It finally led to Irish independence.

Londonderry, which had a large Catholic Irish population, remained in the United Kingdom, cut off from its economic hinterland in the Irish mainland. It became a border town. In “Derry”, the more popular name of folklore, the Irish Catholics were slightly outnumbered by Protestants, both communities then neatly divided along the River Foyle, which cuts through the town as it meanders through the broad countryside to merge in the Atlantic Ocean.

 Britain prepares for Brexit: Old wounds, religious tensions simmer in Northern Ireland as UK prepares to leave EU

Representational image. Reuters

When what the Irish delicately call “Troubles” started in the late 1960s, the demographics began to shift, with Protestants fleeing the violence. But today, after 20 years of peace, only a small percentage of Catholics outnumber the Protestant inhabitants of Londonderry. The political dynamics in Northern Ireland changed in the late 1990s with the Good Friday agreement between those who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland and those who wanted to remain in the UK. Significantly, the agreement left the big question open: It provided for a future referendum on joining the Republic of Ireland.

Alongside, the European Union juggernaut rolled on: beginning in 1992, when European Union became a common market, the “hard” border began to soften with the free movement of goods and services into Northern Ireland. In 2005, the last of British military checkpoints were removed from the border, which is the UK’s sole land link with the continent of Europe.

Ever since, the links between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have only become stronger. Today, they are practically inextricable.

“Nobody wants a border,” says Jerry, who refused to give his last name and provided a first name only as an afterthought. A middle-aged man, who did not state his profession, Jerry has dual citizenship of Ireland and the United Kingdom but grew up in Londonderry. He lives just a 10 minutes’ drive across the “soft” border from Londonderry, and spends all his free time in town with his friends. He is Catholic. “I cannot imagine how it will complicate my life to go back to how it used to be. All the border checks!” says Jerry, who makes the short drive across for a swim at a pool whenever he has time.

Sean, a young parent of a toddler in his 20s does not want to see an international border with Ireland. “It (a hard border) will not happen. My parents live in Ireland, and they babysit my daughter while I am at work,” he says. Family gatherings across the border are commonplace.

In this town, it always mattered whom you asked. Catholic and Protestant Northern Irishmen inhabit different worlds. However, the broad Irish community, which is spread across the continents of America and Australia is mainly Catholic. After the European experiment, the Protestant Irish, who describe themselves as “Unionist” seem to be caught between the receding footprint of the UK government and their economic interests, which have sometimes allied with the EU. Farmers and small businesses earn a European subsidy, which is a welcome change for Northern Irelanders of either religion. The UK government has neglected this region of the country. Mostly, the Protestants venture no opinion on Brexit, dismissing the politicians as ineffective, and “lining their own pockets”.

Across Northern Ireland, religious tensions are simmering just under the surface. Even good friends, when the topic is introduced, publicly fall out. At a local bar, in the centre of the old walled city, the female Catholic owner has forbidden discussion of politics among her customers. It is a restriction her regular customers, who are both Catholic and Protestant, largely respect. The lone Protestant at the bar, unfailingly polite as most across the UK, just offers this with a diminutive shrug after initially refusing to comment: “I say, ‘let sleeping dog lie. No good will come out of such talk.”

At another bar more frequented by Unionists down the street, contrary opinions voiced by members of the two communities lead perilously close to a fight. One man, a Protestant, walks out suddenly, in the middle of a heated Catholic opinion. Shared history of the two communities does prompt the offender to offer to make a full apology but all this tension is only at the prospect of Brexit. It is anyone’s guess where it may go if a full Brexit does indeed come to pass.

This tension is best reflected by a Catholic Irish man with an English accent, which sounded incongruous on the streets of Londonderry. The man, who refused to provide even his first name, encounters hostility at the Irish Catholic pubs he likes to frequent. “I am Irish Catholic but I worked abroad most of my life,” he says explaining his accent, which he calls his “misfortune”. “The other day, I was speaking to a tourist in a bar when a woman (obviously Catholic) gave me a venomous look,” he says.

Religion is central to the story of Londonderry, whose differing iterations of the city’s name itself is telling. To the Unionists, “Londonderry” signifies allegiance to the Crown. To the Irish Catholics, “Derry” is preferable. The city was directly affected by the Protestant Reformation in 16th century England. Across the River Foley closer to the Ireland border, a “peace wall” separates the Protestants from the more numerous Catholics. Within, Old City walls ring a Protestant cathedral built in 1633 by the City of London.

Catholic Irishmen, who nurse a sense of grievance against the Protestant English, see themselves as part of an Irish family around the world. Currently an estimated 80 million around the world trace their ancestry to Ireland. Over 30 million of them live in the US. The Irish migrated to the East Coast, and played a large role in building cities in Massachusetts on the East Coast.

In Londonderry, the Irish-American connection is proudly preserved, with inscriptions on city walls. The “peace wall” displays murals of the city’s first bridge, a wooden one, that was built across the River Foley by an American firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. In the local bars, country western music with Irish roots plays. This neatly laid out city, which is now the only remaining city with its walls intact anywhere in Europe, also played a large role during WWII. It hosted secret visits by United States Navy ships even before America entered the war. Later, the Americans built a naval base which housed Canadian and British Royal Navy troops.

Two decades hence, the event that give this city its smouldering, on-edge character took place. On Sunday, 30 January, 1972, as a peaceful march civil rights march drew to an end, British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians, six of them children.

Today, the distrust of the government is palpable but the Irish Catholics have rarely been so sanguine about their prospects. Nobody wants the Troubles to come back though, but everything will depend on how the UK government solves the Brexit crisis. The Dubliners song from the 70s still resonates:

Now, the music’s gone but I still carry on
For the Spirit’s been bruised but never broken
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won
And what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright brand new day
In the town I loved so well

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 07:15:50 IST