It did not take long to start talking about Brexit with the Friday lunchtime crowd at Café Retro in the small town of Newry in Northern Ireland. Alongside the enduring disbelief and disappointment with the 2016 referendum’s result, in which contrary to England and Wales, Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted to remain in the European Union, some had worries of a more personal nature. Among those gathered was a French woman who had lived in Newry for over thirty years and had four children with her partner, who was from the town. She was unimpressed with the UK government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations so far and did not know what her status would be after Brexit, since she and her partner were not married. “The British can be very stubborn,” she said with a small laugh. “They like to be in control.”
The Republic of Ireland border—which everyone in the cafe said they crossed regularly while visiting friends or going shopping—lies just a few miles to the south of Newry. As between all EU member states, the border is currently “frictionless”—goods and people can move across freely. When I crossed into the Republic of Ireland in late January this year, the only visible indicators of a crossing were signs by the side of the road informing drivers that the speed limit was now measured in kilometres instead of miles per hour. Free movement over the border is a legacy of a peace agreement, reached 20 years ago, which ended a three-decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between nationalist groups fighting for a united, republican Ireland and the British Army and police, along with loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 saw most armed groups lay down their weapons, the demilitarisation of the UK-Irish border and the release of former militants from prisons. It was a compromise that recognised the competing claims of the “Republican” and “Unionist” communities (broadly but not exclusively, Catholic and Protestant respectively) to the territory of Northern Ireland.
It is along the Northern Ireland-Republic border, where demarcations have violent and emotive histories, that Britain’s departure from the EU will be physically embodied. “I think they will have to make an exception for here,” the French woman said as she left the cafe. “They can’t put a border back.” With less than a year to go before the UK formally leaves the EU, and with local politics deeply fractured and the national clamour for Brexit rising, how to achieve this demarcation has emerged as one of the thorniest issues in the exit talks. Many are worried that a government divided over negotiations (and which has not ruled out walking away without a deal) does not possess the dexterity and sensitivity required to ensure the compromise reached in 1998 survives Britain’s departure from the EU.
The island of Ireland was formally incorporated into the Union of Great Britain in 1801. Since the seventeenth century, Protestants from Scotland and the north of England settled in the northern province of Ulster , partly to form an outpost loyal to the Crown in a majority Catholic island, which remained largely hostile to the idea of union with Britain. In 1919, Irish nationalists declared independence, and following the subsequent conflict, the British government partitioned the island in 1921 through an administrative exercise drawing on census and religious data—a method they would use in imperial projects elsewhere in the world. The Catholic-majority south became the independent Irish Republic, and most of Protestant-majority Ulster in the north remained in the UK.
Republican and Unionist claims to Northern Ireland escalated into armed conflict in the late 1960s, following widespread protests by Catholics against perceived discrimination at the hands of the majority Protestant community. “The Troubles,” as the conflict came to be known, lasted for 30 years and killed more than 3,600 people. Atrocities were committed by British forces and both Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups. A small booklet published in 1969, “Orange and Green; a Quaker Study of Community Relations in Northern Ireland,” described a province so divided and militarised along centuries-old sectarian lines, displayed in such public and private ways, that it would have baffled readers from elsewhere in the UK. Schools were almost entirely segregated, even following separate sports curricula: rugby, football and cricket for Protestants, and Gaelic football and hurling for Catholics.