Catholic separatist Irish Republicans, Protestant Irish unionists and loyalists to the British government have been gravely worried about the impact of imminent Brexit.
Northern Ireland, a politically turbulent region of the UK, has been eerily quiet since the 1998 Good Friday deal was signed between the British government, the Irish government and the region’s main Protestant and Catholic parties.
But London’s Brexit deadlock has put things in disarray as both sides of the conflict, Catholic separatist Irish Republicans and Protestan Irish unionists as well as loyalists to the British government are unsure about the status of the disputed region.
Violence has significantly increased in 2019, according to a November report prepared by the Independent Reporting Commission, with at least three people being killed and 81 others wounded by opposing Irish paramilitary groups.
“We have seen the commentary by many about the potential of Brexit to be the cause of a return of violence – including through an increase in paramilitary activity,” the report said.
The conflict in Northern Ireland began in the late 1960s because of the region’s sectarian divisions. While Catholic-majority Ireland won its independence in 1922 after a bloody war with Great Britain, its Protestant-majority in the north refused to secede from London, resulting in a political and military conflict between the two Irish communities.
Since 1960, sectarian clashes, which were known as the age of The Troubles, killed more than 3,500 people on both sides.
With the Good Friday deal, the sectarian clashes have significantly decreased. But Brexit worries both sides paradoxically.
Why is Brexit worrying for both sides?
If Brexit happens, there could be two possible political scenarios for Northern Ireland, where the conflict has partly eased thanks to Britain’s EU membership, enabling free trade and movement with open borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The first scenario is about creating a visible border between two Irelands.
If pro-Brexit Prime Minister Boris Johnson goes for building a physical border between the two Irish political entities after the country’s divorce from the EU, it has a great potential to anger Irish Republicans, who want to merge with independent Ireland, viewing the move as a part of policy to divide Irish communities.
In October, a masked spokesperson for the New IRA, a dissident paramilitary Republican group, said that any British border installations could be a “legitimate target for [an] attack”.
The second scenario is about creating a customs union between two Irelands, operating under both the EU and the UK law.
If Johnson wants to implement a difficult plan, “the Irish backstop”, envisioning a Northern Ireland, which could stay within the UK customs union, but can still operate under the EU regulations, it might make the British region closer to Dublin than London, angering the Unionists. Johnson recently negotiated the Irish backstop with the EU leaders.
“Republicans have been awarded yet again for threatening peace with the constant stream of Brexit concessions,” said Jamie Bryson, the chief editor of the Unionist Voice, referring to the Irish backstop.
Bryson noted that loyalist meetings, which have been held since November across the region, focused on “serious discontent around the proposed Betrayal Act designed to create an economic United Ireland”.
As a result, both sides have been anxious about the possible outcomes of Brexit, creating a widening uncertainty in the opposing camps about the post-Brexit period.
Is the peace deal in danger?
The EU status largely “satisfied both British unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, and Irish republicans, who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland,” wrote Dieter Reinisch, a historian at Institute for Advanced Study, Central European University, in Budapest, and an adjunct professor in international relations at Webster University in Vienna.
Northern Ireland’s pro-EU stance — be they Catholic republicans or Protestant unionists — was clear during the infamous Brexit referendum. While 52 percent of UK voters supported leaving the union, 56 percent of Northern Ireland voted for the remain camp.
“Brexit has been the greatest existential threat to the peace process in 25 years,” viewed Eamon Phoenix, a historian at Queen’s University Belfast.
Marisa McGlinchey, an assistant professor of political science at Coventry University in England, also thinks that Brexit sincerely endangers the peace process.
“Brexit has put the border in Ireland back into the mainstream in a way in which it hasn’t been since 1998, and ‘dissidents’ are seeking to capitalise on the associated instability and momentum gathering around questions about the border,” McGlinchey said.