Brexit, Northern Ireland and a hard border: What you need to know
Some in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, feel abandoned by London as Brexit nears.
Eric Brown had a target on his back for 28 years. That’s how long he spent in the security forces of Northern Ireland, first in the police, then the British Army, during the Troubles.
The sectarian conflict from 1968 to 1998 pitted mostly Catholic Irish nationalists, who wanted to end British rule in Northern Ireland, against mostly Protestant unionists, who wanted British rule to continue.
Policemen and soldiers were routine targets for Irish nationalist paramilitaries, as they were regarded as enforcers of British occupation.
The most dangerous place to be a police officer or soldier was along the controversial border, nearly 500 kilometres long, that divided Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. It is where Brown worked and lived, in the strongly nationalist county of Fermanagh.
The border is quiet now, and people on both sides can travel across it without even realising they’ve done so. But security officials across the United Kingdom and Ireland have warned that Brexit might put an end to that.
The European Union insists that if Northern Ireland leaves the bloc along with the rest of the UK, and adopts different trading rules from EU-member state the Republic of Ireland, then they’ll be forced to create a “hard border” of customs checks and trading posts.
That could, in the worst case scenario, incite Irish nationalist paramilitaries, now largely dormant, to renew their attacks.
But Brown, like many unionists, sees warnings of a so-called hard border as a threat European leaders are using to force Britain to stay close to the European Union.
“I always thought this hard border stuff was a little bit of scaremongering,” he tells Al Jazeera. “I don’t for one moment believe that this could challenge the peace and lead to a return of violence. I don’t think the situation and circumstances are right, certain political parties could not afford to return to terrorism.”
He is disappointed by the deal negotiated by the British government to withdraw from the EU. In order to avoid any possibility of a “hard border”, Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed that Northern Ireland will continue to abide by all of the EU’s trading rules, even if the rest of the UK diverges.
The deal has prompted consternation from unionists, who fear they are being sold out.
It is a double shock because, due to May’s poor performance in elections last year, she has been relying on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to back up her government. Faced with the prospect of their homeland being permanently economically cut off from the rest of the UK, the DUP has all but withdrawn its support for her.
During the 2016 Brexit referendum, Brown voted to remain in the EU, and even though the result went the other way, he says it should be honoured.
Now he is faced with the prospect of living under EU rules, with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK undermined.
“There is trepidation among unionists. This is a threat to the union,” he says. “I don’t see why Northern Ireland should be treated preferentially, because we took the decision as a nation, we need to face it as a nation.”
But not everyone agrees, including most of those who work in the Province’s vital agricultural industry.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union has thrown its weight behind the deal, not with great enthusiasm, but because almost all of its members agree that any deal that keeps close economic ties with the EU is better than simply crashing out of the bloc without agreement.
“Withdrawing without a deal would be an absolute disaster,” says the union’s president, Ivor Ferguson. “Seventy-five percent of what we produce leaves Northern Ireland. We depend so much on trading north and south, any restrictions on that would be a problem.”
Business leaders and organisations representing the hospitality, food and drinks industry have also backed the deal.
It isn’t just about continuing free trade with Europe, it’s also about maintaining the high product standards promoted by the EU.
“A big concern for us would be if the floodgates were opened to cheap products below our standards,” Ivor continues. “Some of the politicians who said not to worry about leaving the EU without a deal were also the ones who wanted to bring in cheap products from America and elsewhere.”
Even for farmers though, the deal creates nervousness.
Ivor says he’s received assurances from London that there will never be any restrictions for Northern Irish products being sold into the rest of the UK, guarantees which “at the moment” he takes at face value.
But Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the Belfast-based unionist daily newspaper The News Letter, envisages a full trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The EU won’t allow us out and London clearly won’t fight for us,” he says, “it means a major barrier between us and the rest of the UK.”
Despite this sentiment, the deal has not prompted mass protests. According to Lowry, the issues are too complex. “Very few people understand it and the implications of it, and therefore there is nothing like the uproar that there should be.”
He is dismissive of suggestions that Northern Ireland could benefit from its unique position between the EU and the rest of the UK, attracting investment from international companies that want to straddle both jurisdictions.
“Many people believe we will get the best of both worlds. I would even be attracted to that myself, if it wasn’t my fear for the long-term implications of this,” he says. “This is a victory for Irish nationalism better than they could have dreamt of a few years ago.”