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20 years after Good Friday deal, Brexit threatens to disrupt the peace

British troops stand guard in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, during disorders in the area in 1969.
AP Photo
Northern Ireland experiences a heavy hangover from the 30-year period known as the ‘The Troubles'

As the British government and the European Union stand on the cusp of a Brexit deal, Northern Ireland not-so-quietly awaits its fate. With a collapsed executive government and delicately-balanced peace deal, two decades on from the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the country still reels from a conflict that continues to divide the cobbled streets of Belfast.

“Brexit is potentially the biggest threat to the peace process since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement,” Ivan Lewis, former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told i24NEWS. “It is essential that everything possible is done to minimize inevitable insecurities and differences in recognition that, nothing is more important than the peace and stability that has transformed Northern Ireland,” he added.

Northern Ireland still experiences a rather heavy hangover from the 30-year period known as the ‘The Troubles.’ The conflict that shook the 25 miles long and 6 miles wide region pitted Northern Ireland’s republican nationalists -- a largely Catholic faction seeking to break free from British rule and unite with the Republic of Ireland -- against the predominantly Protestant unionists who sought to keep Northern Ireland tied to the United Kingdom.

Formally signed by the British and Irish governments, alongside eight Northern Irish political parties, the historic Good Friday Agreement sounded the death knell to the “bloody” conflict, that saw 3,500 people lose their lives. Heralding in the creation of a power-sharing government, it established a newfound political consensus rooted in equality and fairness as well as the disarmament of paramilitary groups on both sides.

Most significantly, it acknowledged Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the UK. However, it maintained that identity remained fluid -- people were permitted to hold two passports and choose their own citizenship, meaning they could be British or Irish or both. It was lauded as a marvel in “constructive ambiguity.”

AP Photo/Peter Morrison

- ‘Troubled’ Identities -

The peace, despite providing a facade of stability, rests jauntily upon an uneasy calm where many people inhabit contested ideologies. As a new ‘Northern Irish’ identity emerged, Brexit has since reignited age-old grievances, threatening to fuel divisions that lay bubbling under the surface papered over in recent years by a common-membership of the European Union.

“The Brexit deal will be cataclysmic both across the island of Ireland and for those pro and anti,” said Quintin Oliver, director of conflict resolution organization Stratagem and former leader of the “yes” campaign for the Good Friday Agreement. He explained to i24NEWS that the debate has broadly been cast in “orange and green terms”, referencing the colors of unionism and nationalism, which threaten to further politicize the issue.

Petering out only a decade or so back, the population of Northern Ireland still holds distressing memories of a time ago before when life was characterized by fear of terrorist reprisals, checkpoints, security barriers erected through cities and border checkpoints. Peace walls that divide Belfast daubed with political murals now stand in their place as a visible reminder of the recent past.

Most specifically, the reinstatement of borders has become a flashpoint issue amid the Brexit talks, a feature that reignites undertones of the past.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is yet to provide an alternative “backstop” solution for the Irish border issue, that continues to plague European and Irish negotiators alike. Questions surrounding Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the single market and EU customs unions remain unanswered, perpetuating a political paralysis. Last month witnessed a breakthrough transitional deal, but this was merely kicking the border problem into the long grass.

The lack of a noticeable border has been seemingly critical to calming ethnic tensions. Oliver said that “even if nationalists were not happy about living under the Union Jack, the lack of a visible border allowed them to develop a sense of common identity with fellow EU citizens.”

Peter Sheridan, Chief Executive of peace-building charity Co-operation Ireland that “being in Europe allowed the new identity to be settled among the people and if you put a border up, you create a semi-detached status.” Critiquing negotiation efforts he added that “both Europe and Westminster have been focusing on issues of trade and customs, the piece they are missing is the impact this will have on identity,” something the border appears to represent.

AP Photo/Peter Morrison

- A United Ireland? -

As the border issue stands unresolved it has sparked debates about the prospect of a united Ireland, something that Unionists, who wish to remain in an “ever closer union” with the UK, fear and Nationalists, pursuing unification, seek.

“Unionists are looking for stability and a final settlement whilst Nationalists are always pursuing the unrealised aspiration of a united Ireland,” Mike Nesbitt, former leader of the unionist UUP party, told i24NEWS. “That tension is back in play because of the uncertainty created by Brexit and the nationalists renewed and energized opportunity.”

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) expressed that anything that differentiates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will fall short of a vote, leaving May, whose Conservative party is currently propped up by the DUP, short of a majority. Sinn Fein, former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and largest nationalist party are pushing for “special status” in any future agreement on UK-EU ties with the hope of aligning it more closely with the Republic of Ireland.

A hard border, proving seemingly likely due to no alternative plans presented, threatens to exacerbate the underlying fault-lines that were buried by compromises reached during the landmark Good Friday peace deal. The stakes grow ever higher as many fear for a return to the sectarian violence that engulfed their past.

Jesseca Manville is a journalist and news editor on the English web desk. She was a former assistant to the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

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