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Will Brexit jeopardize 21 years of peace in Northern Ireland?

As the Brexit deadline looms, the United Kingdom and the European Union are both feeling uncertain. Ireland faces an especially complex dynamic: It will remain part of the EU, but it shares a border with the UK's Northern Ireland, which will not. Twenty-one years after the Good Friday Agreement, what does Brexit mean for peace in a fraught region? Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In three weeks' time, the United Kingdom is supposed to leave the European Union, and, still, there is no deal for that so-called Brexit.

    A major sticking point? The fate of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation that will remain part of the E.U.

    How that border matter is resolved could also have major implications for the peace forged 21 years ago that ended the deadly uprising in Northern Ireland.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson was born and raised in Northern Ireland, and returned there to examine these tense and fraught times.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As the sun rises over this corner of Ireland, first light bathes an invisible frontier. It touches Carlingford Lough, just south of the border, and reaches across to the hills of South Armagh, in the north.

    It's a peaceful place. But this rugged, beautiful land straddling two nations has a violent history. It was here that the deadliest branch of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, battled British rule for some 30 years, beginning in the late 1960s.

    These fields and lanes became so dangerous for British troops, they could only deploy here safely by helicopter. The Troubles, as they were called, transformed this tranquil place into a war zone.

    As a young girl, growing up just outside the small village of Markethill in Northern Ireland, I watched how the violence of that time affected everyone.

    It is amazing for me to think what was normal life back then in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s. When I was just a kid here in my local village, the police station was attacked. It's just that compound over there. It was attacked by the IRA.

    And while that attack was taking place, I was in kindergarten in the local village school here behind me. Myself and my classmates were all evacuated. But, back then, normal life involved the threat of attacks and bombings and killings.

    Protestant communities were mostly Unionist, wanting Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Catholic communities were Irish Nationalist for the most part, wanting all of Ireland to be unified, free from British rule.

    More than 3,500 people died during the Troubles, half of them civilians. In 1998, armed groups and politicians agreed to finally make peace, and signed an historic treaty called the Good Friday Agreement that effectively ended Northern Ireland's bloody sectarian conflict.

    Twenty years later, and that peace has brought stability. As long as both the Republic of Ireland and Britain were members of the same European Union, there was no need for a militarized border, and sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics eased.

    Now the political fight over Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union, is threatening that precious harmony. That's because, if the U.K. slices away all official ties to Europe, the Irish Republic would remain inside the E.U., with a European border running across the land separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland, which could mean new customs and security checks.

    It's something that would break the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. That's already reigniting old tensions.

  • Margaret O’Callaghan:

    One of the things the '98 agreement did was, it ended violence, obviously, but it also made it possible to be British or to be Irish, and not to be loyal or disloyal in Northern Ireland.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Professor Margaret O'Callaghan teaches Irish history at Queens University in Belfast.

  • Margaret O’Callaghan:

    Nobody envisaged, when the '98 agreement was put in place, that there would be a situation in which Britain would be outside the E.U. and Ireland would be in the E.U. So, this throws up all kinds of problems nobody had anticipated.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, British border posts were viewed as provocative by Irish nationalists. With identity politics, nearly everything becomes political.

    That's why peace only came after the border was made less visible. It's still here, but you would hardly know it. One potential solution to the border issue is being called the Backstop. That would mean leaving Northern Ireland inside the E.U. economic zone, even though the rest of Great Britain would be outside.

    The customs border would be an invisible line across the Irish Sea, giving Northern Ireland an economic special status. It's a solution that is rejected by Unionists.

  • Robin Swann:

    It removed us from the United Kingdom. And once you start to break those ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, it's the start of a process and then. And it's a process that we don't want to be part of.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Northern Ireland, many people earn a living through farming, like my family. I grew up on this farm in County Armagh, and I returned here just as the deadline for making a deal with Europe grows near.

    If trade agreements are severed with a hostile Brexit, farmers here, like my father, will find themselves subject to tariffs on their goods being sold to Europe. My father is also the president of the farmer's union in Northern Ireland. He says around half of all lamb meat from Northern Ireland crosses the border into the Republic of Ireland and ends up in France.

  • Ivor Ferguson:

    Our lambs leaving Northern Ireland and going to Southern Ireland would pay a tariff of about 35 to 40 pounds sterling per lamb, and that would mean that, well, farming just wouldn't stand that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Another fear is new imports from other countries, like the U.S., free from Europeans regulations on how animals are raised and cared for. Farmers here could find themselves undercut in price by foreign goods.

  • Ivor Ferguson:

    The E.U. has quite strict standards, so they don't want American beef because it's full of hormones. The chicken is washed with chlorine. So they don't want that. They won't allow that in.

    So, that's a thing we are concerned about as well. If the U.K. decided to drop the standards, then that would be a major difficulty for us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Democratic Unionist Party campaigned for Brexit. They say, despite the March 29 deadline to leave Europe, new trade agreements will eventually emerge.

  • Gordon Lyons:

    We want to see a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. We want to make sure that there is the protection and the certainty there for business, above anything else.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For Unionists, however, there is another concern.

    To some of their rivals amongst Nationalists, the discord over Brexit could signal an opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement includes a clause that calls for an eventual referendum, or poll, on removing the Irish border entirely and uniting Ireland.

    When Northern Ireland was formed almost 100 years ago, there was a clear Protestant majority. Over the years, that majority has eroded, and is now almost gone. So far, no one has wanted to risk the delicate peace in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement by calling for a unity referendum, but the Brexit debate has changed everything here.

  • Mary Lou McDonald:

    A hard border on the island of Ireland cannot happen, will not happen, and is not an option.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Mary Lou McDonald is the president of Sinn Fein, traditionally seen as the political wing of the IRA.

  • Mary Lou McDonald:

    If the British government insists on a reckless course of action that brings a difficulty to the Good Friday Agreement and causes a hardening of the border, in those circumstances, the only democratically correct thing that they can do is put the issue of the border itself to the people, allow the people to have their say in a referendum, in a border poll.

    After all…

  • Jane Ferguson:

    On a united Ireland?

  • Mary Lou McDonald:


  • Jane Ferguson:

    A hard border in Northern Ireland would almost certainly reignite anger, but, for now, the likelihood of an outright insurgency again is low.

    There's been a lot said in the press about how there's a risk of returning to the kind of violence we saw here in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Is that realistic?

  • Margaret O’Callaghan:

    No, I don't think that is realistic at all. I don't see a return to that kind of violence. Post-9/11, we live in a different kind of world.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That doesn't mean sporadic violence, less organized, wouldn't be possible.

  • Mary Lou McDonald:

    I think it would be a very foolish and a very reckless person that would gamble at all on stability, that would gamble in any way, however small, would take any chance with the peace that we have built.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The memories of violence and loss, however, are still sharp, and Northern Ireland's people know they have much at stake in the coming months, hoping their hard-won peace here can withstand the changing world around them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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