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Brexit stirs up old divides in Northern Ireland

February 25, 2017 at 3:03 PM EDT
In March, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to begin the process of having the United Kingdom formally exit the European Union. While a majority of voters in the UK voted to leave the EU, voters in Northern Ireland favored remaining, in part because of fears that Brexit could affect a peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Patricia Sabga reports.

By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

PATRICIA SABGA: The sectarian violence that roiled Northern Ireland for decades is stamped on the Belfast landscape. Across this capital city, murals commemorate the more than three-and-a-half thousand people killed during the conflict, known here as The Troubles.

PETER HUGHES: We’re going to start on the Shankill Road.

PATRICIA SABGA: Cab driver Peter Hughes is our guide.

PETER HUGHES: There’s a process of some of the more offensive murals, stripping them away, replace them with something a little more positive but leaving evidence then of the old.

PATRICIA SABGA: It’s a visual tempering of passions surrounding the conflict that pitted minority Catholic political and paramilitary factions fighting to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland…against Protestant state and paramilitary forces who want Northern Ireland to remain British.

NEWS REPORTER: Inside, eight political groups…

PATRICIA SABGA: In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed former U-S Senator George Mitchell to broker peace talks, which culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that formally ended the Troubles and set up a power-sharing government between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists.. Today, 21 miles of “peace walls” still separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast. A lingering division reflected in Northern Ireland’s Brexit vote.

While the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the European Union, 56 percent of Northern Irish voters wanted to remain. The vote also split along sectarian lines with. 85% of Northern Irish Catholics preferring to stay in the EU, compared to 40% percent of Protestants.

Perhaps the most contentious issue raised by Brexit is the future of the 300 mile border dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. During The Troubles, parts of it were heavily fortified with military features that stood as physical reminders of Ireland’s partition by the British.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement transformed the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Eyesores of division like watchtowers, military checkpoints and concrete bollards have vanished. I’m standing on the border right now, and it’s difficult to tell where one country ends and the other begins. But that seamlessness could very well change when Britain leaves the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it.

THERESA MAY: Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

PATRICIA SABGA: British Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to assuage concerns by stating her preference for a “frictionless border.” But Gerry Adams – a towering figure among Catholic Republicans and a key player in the peace process, isn’t buying it.

GERRY ADAMS: The European Union, quite rightly, like any other federation or any other state, will want to protect itself. And there will be tariffs, there will be economic penalties, and there will be physical manifestations of a hard border.

PATRICIA SABGA: For 34 years, Adams has led Sinn Fein, the political party historically tied to the Irish Republican Army…which fought to separate Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and a British government Adams contends still doesn’t have Northern Ireland’s best interests at heart.

How would you characterize their concern for Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit world?

GERRY ADAMS: I don’t think they give a fig about people here. I don’t think they ever have.

PATRICIA SABGA: Sinn Fein is calling for a referendum on re-uniting Ireland – but the immediate demand is for the British government to support granting Northern Ireland a special status to stay in the E-U. That would in effect move the post-Brexit E-U border from Ireland to the rest of the UK.

GERRY ADAMS: This is the most successful peace process there is in the last half-century. But it needs to be nurtured. It needs to be nourished. So the sensible, decent thing for the British Prime Minister to do is to go for the principle of a special deal for the North within the European Union, a special designated status.

PATRICIA SABGA: But Prime Minister May’s government calls special status for Northern Ireland the “wrong approach.” Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party agrees. Sammy Wilson is a member of the British Parliament and the DUPs chief spokesman on Brexit.

SAMMY WILSON: Our position on that is quite clear. We do not wish to have any special status at all, and indeed Brexit should not be used as an excuse to weaken the union.

PATRICIA SABGA: Wilson says fears of a return to hardened borders after Brexit are overblown.

SAMMY WILSON: Given the methods that we now have of checking movements of not just people but also of goods, it is entirely possible using modern technology to have these virtually frictionless borders. They’ll not be totally frictionless. There has to be some checking, there has to be some paperwork, but that’s all manageable.

PATRICIA SABGA: Wilson also dismisses the notion that Brexit could undermine peace.

SAMMY WILSON: I’m fairly sure that at the end of this process we will be wondering, “What was all the fuss about?

PATRICIA SABGA: The Brexit rift between Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties is unfolding at a time of changing demographics and growing political turbulence. A 2011 Census showed that Protestants now comprise less than half the population in Northern Ireland — 48% –while the share of Catholics has risen to 45%.

Last month, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government collapsed over the handling of a renewable energy project—triggering new assembly elections in March. We saw signs of resurgent political polarization. This display of past IRA bombings on a wall in a unionist neighborhood drew a parallel to the 2015 Paris attacks by the Islamic State. The caption reads “IRA-Sinn Fein-ISIS, no difference.”

When you see something like that, what does that tell you about the current state of peace?

SAMMY WILSON: The first thing it tells me is this, that of course there has always been an affiliation between the Irish Republicans and terrorist groups, especially in the Middle East.

PATRICIA SABGA: Well, do you agree with it? Do you agree with that–

SAMMY WILSON: I do. Yes, of course, I do–

PATRICIA SABGA: Placard saying, equating Sinn Féin with ISIS?


PATRICIA SABGA: For many in Northern Ireland, the pain of past political violence by both sides endures, despite nearly 20 years of peace. Belfast native Raymond McCord lost his son, Raymond Junior to the Troubles in 1997.

RAYMOND MCCORD: That’s the man actually murdered Raymond. That’s the man who gave the order.

PATRICIA SABGA: But no one has ever been charged with the crime. Unable to secure justice, McCord now campaigns for victims’ rights on both sides of the sectarian divide–advocacy that prompted him to launch an unsuccessful legal challenge to Brexit over concerns that he and others could lose access to the European Court of Human Rights

RAYMOND MCCORD: People like myself can’t get justice here.

PATRICIA SABGA: And that’s not his only worry. McCord fears Brexit could stir up tensions among illegal paramilitary groups that have leveled threats against him. According to a 2015 British government report, “All the main paramilitary groups operating during the period of the Troubles remain in existence.” While sectarian killings have stopped, the report said, “Violence and intimidation are used to exercise control” at the community level, including “paramilitary-style assaults and, on occasion, murders.”

What will Brexit do to the peace as it stands right now in Northern Ireland?

RAYMOND MCCORD: It could destroy it. Simple as that.

PATRICIA SABGA: Paul O’Neill, who lives in a working class Catholic neighbourhood in Belfast, also worries about the consequences of Brexit.

PAUL O’NEILL: Something like 600 people from the area were imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

PATRICIA SABGA: During the Troubles, O’Neill was accused of being an IRA member and jailed for five years, only to have his conviction overturned. Since the Good Friday Agreement, he’s worked with former prisoners as part of the Ashton community center, which receives funding from the E-U that will dry up after Brexit.

The British government promised that they would provide assistance for Republican ex-prisoners, loyalist ex-prisoners, and their families to readjust. Very little happened, didn’t happen. It was European money that allowed that to happen. I mean, there’s a whole range of projects, youth projects, ex-prisoner support projects, various projects that wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened were it not for the fact that we were able to access funding from Europe.

The EU also funds Erasmus…a student exchange program that brings together Catholic and Protestant youth, some for the first time.

Who here is Catholic, and who here is Protestant?

KIDS: We’re Catholic.

BOY: Yeah, Catholic.

PATRICIA SABGA: OK? And who’s Protestant? And how do you get along?

KIDS: Brilliant!

On a wall in Belfast, a mural stands as testament to Catholic and Protestant children who lived together in harmony until the Troubles began….

PETER HUGHES: For them, it exploded over a two day period. 1,800 families lost their homes in two days. So at that point, these kids are separate, they’re segregated.

PATRICIA SABGA: Is there any concern that Brexit could possibly lead back to that?

PETER HUGHES: There’s very much a fear, an undercurrent within certain people that we could be dragged back to those dark days. Personally, I don’t think so, but there are people of that belief.