Peace Lines, Borders, and Brexit: Northern Ireland’s Dilemma

The Shankill is one of the main roads leading through Belfast and home to the city’s predominantly Protestant and Loyalist supporters– citizens who are in favour of the country remaining under British control. On the other side is Falls Road– the Republican Catholic community who are in favour of a United Ireland out of British control. 

Whilst fundamentally different and opposed– what unites these communities is their segregation– in the 25 ft high physical peace walls dividing them, manned by police– some have gates where the passage between the areas at night-time is blocked in an attempt to lower inter-communal violence. 

This border is one of many on the island: between the Republic and the region of Ulster, but also, between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland due to the Brexit border crisis. 

The 1921 Partition of Ireland separated the island to create two devolved governments both under British control, in hope that this would then lead to reunification. Violence ensued as Southern Ireland refused to create a government, therefore, defying British rule– declaring an Irish Republic independent from the UK. This resistance led to the Irish War of Independence. The outcome of this guerilla war was the Anglo-Irish treaty that recognised the Republic of Ireland as independent from Britain. 

Supposed peace was futile. Borders created discrimination and differences in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, with the latter oppressed. In response to housing and employment prejudice, as well as issues with the Electoral Representation of Catholic towns, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association led a campaign in favour of equality. Met with opposition, violence ensued– most notably in the Battle of Bogside– leading to the thirty-year conflict known as The Troubles.

Whilst most of this violence ceased with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the borders and peace walls are representative of a conflict still unsettled.

The 2016 Brexit referendum has proved many complexities. Most British citizens did not know what the European Union was upon voting. For Northern Irish citizens, the vote complexified their relationships with both the Republic and Westminster. 

Self-imposed apartheid has characterised the communities in Belfast, Derry, Portadown and Lurgan. Decisions to not mingle with those different to them has contributed to the growing tensions– the Orange Order walk on July 12th celebrating the Protestant William of Orange’s invasion and subsequent oppression of Catholics in the 17th century, and in the 2021 Northern Ireland riots. These recent riots were incited by the border and goods crisis as a result of Brexit– where a fifth of businesses surveyed said that suppliers were ‘unwilling to engage with the new requirements of shipping– and in some cases, businesses from Great Britain are no longer supplying Northern Ireland. 

Loyal Orange Order March, Edinburgh. (Credit: Des Mooney, via Flickr)

Unionist or Nationalist self-identification was the most important determinant of referendum choice on Brexit. For many, voting Leave became part of a British identity– much like how in England, voting Leave became a point of taking back control. For Unionists in Northern Ireland, this was felt strongly. Even those who wished to stay in the EU– but were Unionists– voted leave, mainly out of principle. Due to the religious and political separation in the country, there’s a separation in politics manifesting itself in the nationalist party of Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

This is furthermore complicated by the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats in Westminster, as in doing so, it would give legitimacy to an institution they do not recognise . But this meant that the party could not argue against Britain’s withdrawal from the EU nor fight to remain there.

For a history marked by separation, the departure of the UK from the EU was just another chapter in a long story. The Lanark Peace Gates are not only divided by religion and ethno-nationalist beliefs but also the difference between Remain and Leave voters. These are some of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland– their deprivation and poverty levels are what unites them, but their perceived solutions mark the difference and creates conflict. 

Northern Ireland has the lowest poverty rate of any UK region. Its unemployment rate is small also, but its educational attainment and health and disability are where the country draws short. More than two-thirds of students on the Shankhill– the Protestant area– and Falls Road– the Catholic area– perform below Belfast’s average. The poverty in these areas is most likely incited by the Unionist andRepublican division– balancing the demands of the integrated educational system has led to many falling behind in their exams. Brexit has only worsened this.

For a generation that was promised peace in 1998, 23 years later– the situation remains in conflict.

Under Sinn Fein and the opinion of Republicans was that Northern Ireland needed to stay in the EU as an important way of working towards a united Ireland, eventually, especially as it was EU integration that ceased the patrolling of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. 

In contrast, UK sovereignty is the most important thing for British Unionists, given that the Unionist working-class was the likely sector to vote for Brexit, with the Democratic Unionist Party encouraging those to vote to Leave. 

Due to Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be stronger due to EU laws– that an EU country must have a hard border with a non-EU country. At the same time, a new border has emerged between Northern Ireland and the UK– one that was separated by water is now in conflict due to Brexit– a complication many were not prepared for.

Northern Ireland has not known peace in its entire existence. Whilst most of its citizens still favour remaining a part of the UK, due to Brexit and heightening tensions– this could change. Ireland could become unified sooner than many realise.

Aoifke Madeleine, Summer Writer

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