13 March, 2019
It is hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when the word “terrorist” conjured not an anti-Western Al Qaeda or ISIS fighter, but balaclava-clad members of the Irish Republican Army and UVF. Underneath their ski masks, they may have worn their hair in shaggy rocker style, and had names as mundane as Brian or Bobby. This was at least true in Western Europe during the 1970s and 80s height of the “Troubles,” the modern-day apex of the centuries-long conflict between the mostly Protestant Unionists (loyal to the British crown), and predominantly Catholic Republicans – Republican in the sense that they wished to join a united Republic of Ireland.
The conflict, comparable to Israel – Palestine in its entrenchment (to this day, you may see Israeli flags flying in Protestant East Belfast, and Palestinian flags in the Catholic West) seemed similarly eternal. That is, until the passing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The Agreement was a multi-pronged effort to honor the wish of the majority within Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, while acknowledging that most residents of the island overall were in favor of a United Ireland. Government bodies were created to effectively moderate internal politics, as well as the country’s relationships with the Republic and the mainland. The Northern Ireland Assembly would allocate seats proportionately, and require majority votes on both sides for major decisions. With its passing, Northern Irish citizens became eligible for both British and Irish passports. The Agreement also called for the disarming of paramilitary groups within the country, the most essential component for many who experienced the bloodiest years of the Troubles.
The referendum had mass public support, passing with 71.1% of the vote. Stunningly, the Irish constitutional amendment in support of it, and of relinquishing territorial rights to the North, passed with almost 95% of the vote. The conservative Democratic Unionist Party was the only major faction to oppose the accord. Longtime Euroskeptic, the DUP has also been one of the main proponents behind Brexit.
After 9/11 and the “war on terror,” the geopolitical focus of Western powers shifted. Memories of the Troubles were quickly buried. Northern Ireland was pitched as an attractive destination for commercial and tourism development. The site of the hardscrabble shipyards was transformed into a shooting location for Hollywood prestige projects. Less than two decades later, the North now exemplified economic opportunity, not strife. Only this shortness of memory can account for the UK’s inexplicable lack of focus on the Northern Ireland peace process during the run-up to Brexit. And now they are suffering for it.
The “England for the English” ethos which fueled Brexit’s most strident supporters has also been its logistical downfall. Much has been made of the large number of National Health Service employees hailing from elsewhere in the EU, not to mention the Britons of Indian, Pakistani, and Caribbean descent who make the country what it is today. But it also must be remembered that the United Kingdom is not composed of England alone.
For many young Irish, life paths were followed, and marriage vows were exchanged with the expectation that the border would remain flexible. Rebecca Lyttle, 27, from Holywood, Northern Ireland, is part of the generation which began their professional lives after the signing of the Agreement. She currently works as a marketing professional in Dublin. Lyttle describes the situation facing many of her peers as Brexit looms.
“Being from Northern Ireland and living in the Republic has always had its complications – two currencies, two phones, registering for an Irish Personal Public Service Number. However, Brexit could make things a whole lot more complicated. For example, if there’s a hard border how easy will it be to travel home? I’ve even had friends from Home whose companies have planted the seed that in a worst-case scenario where they need a visa or permit to work here, they may be let go.”
70 year-old retired software developer Frank Metcalf also has his worries. His two daughters married men from the Republic and settled there with their new families. He and his wife Margaret have been making weekly trips to help with his young grandchildren (five in total). What is currently a simple two-hour drive between capitals could become much more egregious with an international border checkpoint in between.
As a No-Deal Brexit approaches some have proposed an “Irish Backstop” solution. This would tie Northern Ireland to the single market, and Britain as a whole would remain within the customs union. For hard-line “leave” voters this scenario is unacceptable. But as history has shown, if interminable conflict can be solved anywhere, it’s in Northern Ireland.