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.