Northern Ireland fear Brexit: ‘We are going to suffer economic’

Sinead McLaughlin stands in the middle of the Peace Bridge in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. She‘s pointing to the other side of the water. โ€œSee the hills there? That’s the county of Donegal. Three sides of this city borders the Republic of Ireland. The economies on both sides of the border are fully intertwined.โ€

The place is full of symbolism. The Peace Bridge across the River Foyle connects the Protestant and Catholic part of the city. The elegant bridge was opened in 2011 to perpetuate the early Northern Ireland peace. โ€œThis bridge has been funded with European money,โ€ says McLaughlin, who represents the city of Derry in the Northern Ireland Parliament. โ€œOur local railway line has been expanded with European funds. We have benefited immensely from our relationship with the European Union. It has been important for peace.โ€

It therefore has mixed feelings about 1 January, when the United Kingdom is finally saying goodbye to the European Union. โ€œI‘m relieved because there’s a trade deal. I am also glad that the agreement over the border has remained intact. There will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreements, Ireland and the United Kingdom decided to open the border and abolish any kind of border control. It was a crucial part of the peace agreement, which put an end to the Troubles, the bloody struggle between the Catholic paramilitary organisation IRA and the British government.

Brexit threatened to disrupt the entire peace process with the return of a hard border. For a long time, the border was the biggest obstacle in the negotiations. Last year, after difficult discussions, Brussels and London reached an agreement. Northern Ireland will have a separate status within the United Kingdom and will continue to follow the EU’s trade rules in part. The border is thus shifting to the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

But even though the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains open, McLaughlin has no illusion whatsoever. โ€œThis is still a hard brexit. Northern Ireland is somewhat protected, but make no mistake. There is no such thing as a good brexit. We are only trying to prevent the worst damage in this new trade relationship.โ€

The Member is particularly concerned about the economy. โ€œTrade with the Republic of Ireland will remain virtually unfriction-free. But Northern Ireland companies trading with England, for example, are facing obstacles in the form of controls and additional paperwork. We are going to suffer economic pain anyway.โ€

Derry has more than worries about economic damage. This is the city of Bloody Sunday, the Sunday in 1972 when British soldiers shot down 26 unarmed civilians. Fourteen people died. After Bloody Sunday, the Northern Ireland conflict flourished, which would cost thousands of people‘s lives. In the Bogside district, which was a stronghold of the IRA during the Troubles, large murals still remind of that bloody battle.

According to Michael Doherty, people are making a mistake when they think the conflict is over in Northern Ireland. โ€œWe only managed to make the conflict less violent. That’s it and nothing else. There is less violence, but the conflict still exists.โ€

Doherty has been acting as a peace mediator between Catholic and Protestant groups in Derry for thirty years. He knows how fragile the balance is in the Northern Ireland peace process. In 2020, there is still deep mistrust between Catholic Republicans, seeking reunification with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestant Unionists who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. It does not take much to focus the proportions.

According to the peace mediator, Brexit has disrupted that balance and a trade deal does not change that much. โ€œProtestant unionists were in favour of a Brexit, while the Catholics were against it. Brexit has driven the two groups further apart. Certainly among the Protestants, fear has grown. With special status for Northern Ireland, they see their relationship with the rest of Britain becoming weaker.โ€

Catholic nationalists seize Brexit to force reunification with the Irish Republic, which is a nightmare scenario for the Protestants. All over the Catholic districts of Derry have been seeing large posters calling for a reunification referendum lately.

Northern Ireland, for example, opens up a new chapter in its turbulent history on 1 January. A Brexit chapter with a historic trade deal, but also a chapter with new headaches.