Brexit made com­pli­cated by Ire­land

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Wil­liam Booth and Amanda Fer­gu­son

Chal­lenges cen­ter on how the EU keeps free move­ment of peo­ple and trade with Ire­land af­ter Brexit.

LON­DON­DERRY, North­ern Ire­land — It was “a very so­cia­ble sum­mer,” the Derry Girls re­call. As easy as the breeze, they crossed the largely in­vis­i­ble bor­der into the Repub­lic of Ire­land, to visit fam­ily, or share a pint, or swim in the sea dur­ing the un­sea­son­ably warm weather.

“So we all got to think­ing how we take all this for granted — the free­dom of it, the flow — and how it all could end,” said Nicola Her­ron, 52, a lo­cal doc­tor who joined the group of like­minded women to pres­sure politi­cians to keep things just the way they are.

“It’s scary, to be hon­est,” said Elaine Do­herty, 50, a psy­chol­o­gist and fel­low ac­tivist in the cam­paign, which for­mally calls it­self Derry Girls Against Borders. “Brexit is just months away — and there’s not a sin­gle per­son who can tell you what will hap­pen to us.”

The 310-mile bor­der that cuts is­land of Ire­land has be­come per­haps the sin­gle great­est im­ped­i­ment in the di­vorce ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Bri­tain and the Euro­pean Union.

“A real stick­ing point,” as Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May put it.

The chal­lenges loom over how to con­tinue to al­low for the free move­ment of peo­ple and trade be­tween the Repub­lic of Ire­land, which will re­main in the Euro­pean Union, and North­ern Ire­land, which will leave along with the rest of the United King­dom.

And how to keep the bor­der just as in­vis­i­ble, even as the United King­dom and the Euro­pean Union in­ex­orably di­verge — each free to es­tab­lish their own im­mi­gra­tion con­trols, cus­toms tar­iffs and food safety rules.

And how to do all this with­out up­set­ting the del­i­cate peace in North­ern Ire­land that has re­lied on an open bor­der.

Peo­ple both north and south are quick to say there will be no re­turn­ing to “the Trou­bles” — the vi­cious, in­ti­mate guer­rilla war be­tween pro-Bri­tish Protes­tant union­ists and Ir­ish Catholic repub­li­cans that left more than 3,500 peo­ple dead.

Yet, sec­tar­ian lines re­main deeply drawn in North­ern Ire­land. Many peo­ple in this bor­der city — still known as Lon­don­derry by Protes­tant res­i­dents and Derry by the 75 per­cent with Ir­ish Catholic her­itage — worry that a bun­gled Brexit could rekin­dle ten­sions and pos­si­bly lead to vi­o­lence.

To­day, driv­ing along the Ir­ish bor­der, you might pass a farmer who has a barn in one coun­try but grazes his sheep in the other. Al­most 1 mil­lion peo­ple freely cross the squig­gly line on the map each month. There are 200 of­fi­cial cross­ing points, and no­body knows how many dirt roads, foot trails and cow paths. The economies are tightly in­ter­twined.

Bor­der check­points, and all the mil­i­ta­rized in­fra­struc­ture of bar­racks, watch­tow­ers, bunkers and blast walls, were re­moved from the is­land of Ire­land in the af­ter­math of the 1998 Good Fri­day Agree­ment, a hard­won pact that ended 30 years of vi­o­lence. The deal was in many ways a mas­ter­piece of diplo­macy — it didn’t seek to re­solve all po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences in North­ern Ire­land but in­stead ac­knowl­edged the “con­tin­u­ing, and equally le­git­i­mate, po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions” of both repub­li­cans and union­ists.

Euro­pean Union mem­ber­ship made such eva­sion pos­si­ble. EU poli­cies of free move­ment and free trade al­lowed North­ern Ir­ish repub­li­cans to feel more con­nected to the Repub­lic of Ire­land, while union­ists could con­tinue to be an in­te­gral part of the United King­dom. No one had to choose. Lines, griev­ances, iden­ti­ties could be­gin to soften. But af­ter Brexit?

Repub­li­cans worry that a de­fined bor­der on the is­land would un­der­cut their re­la­tion­ship with the rest of Ire­land. Lead­ers of Sinn Fein, the repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal party, have warned that any Brexit bor­der would has­ten the day they seek an is­land­wide vote to unify.

Bri­tish loy­al­ists are livid about the EU pro­posal to place a cus­toms bor­der in the Ir­ish Sea be­tween North­ern Ire­land and Bri­tain. May’s gov­ern­ing part­ners, North­ern Ire­land’s hard-line Demo­cratic Union­ist Party, op­pose any kind of “spe­cial sta­tus” that would make them sep­a­rate from the United King­dom.

Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk has blamed the Brexit cam­paign­ers, “who are 100 per­cent re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing back the prob­lem of the Ir­ish bor­der.”

In the 2016 ref­er­en­dum, 56 per­cent of North­ern Ire­land vot­ers cast their bal­lots to re­main in the Euro­pean Union. In Derry, it was 78 per­cent.

“Brexit has re-politi­cized ev­ery­thing,” said Jen­nifer McKeever, pres­i­dent of the Lon­don­derry Cham­ber of Com­merce and owner of a shut­tle bus ser­vice with a third of its staff and cus­tomers liv­ing across the bor­der.

May and her Euro­pean coun­ter­parts have promised there will never again be a hard bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land. But what’s a re­al­world and po­lit­i­cally fea­si­ble al­ter­na­tive? They haven’t said, be­cause they don’t know.

May vows that her ne­go­tia­tors in the tran­si­tion pe­riod af­ter Brexit be­gins in March 2019 will craft an un­prece­dented free-trade ac­cord with Europe that makes an Ir­ish bor­der un­nec­es­sary.

Fail­ing that, the prime min­is­ter says, Bri­tain will de­ploy a not-yet-in­vented “tech­no­log­i­cal fix” — per­haps a sys­tem that em­ploys cam­eras with fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware, plus mo­bile track­ing apps and cus­toms checks in ware­houses far from the bor­der.

North­ern Ire­land’s top po­lice of­fi­cer has warned that any cus­toms posts or se­cu­rity in­stal­la­tions would be viewed as “fair game” for at­tack.

Paddy Gal­lagher, 26, is a spokesman for a new fringe po­lit­i­cal party called Sao­radh, which means “lib­er­a­tion” in Ir­ish. The group is home to hard-line repub­li­cans who re­ject the Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

Gal­lagher con­curred that “any sign of a fixed bor­der” would quickly be­come a tar­get. A re­mote cam­era record­ing li­cense plates? A cus­toms col­lec­tor with bar­code scan­ner? “Ca­pa­ble groups would be will­ing to at­tack them,” said Gal­lagher, care­ful not to en­dorse vi­o­lence him­self.

Sao­radh’s head­quar­ters in Derry were raided in Oc­to­ber by po­lice an­titer­ror­ism units, which con­fis­cated 330 fire­works.

Peo­ple here point to a dis­turb­ing week of vi­o­lence this sum­mer, sparked by union­ist pa­rades cel­e­brat­ing the “Twelfth of July,” the vic­tory of Protes­tant Prince Wil­liam of Or­ange over the Catholic de­posed king James II in the Bat­tle of the Boyne in 1690.

An­gry crowds in the Catholic Bog­side neigh­bor­hood erected bar­ri­cades to shut down streets. Al­though the protests were dis­missed by many as “recre­ational ri­ot­ing” by drunken mobs, more than 70 petrol bombs were hurled, along­side two pipe bombs thrown at po­lice of­fi­cers.

This civil un­rest oc­curred on the same streets that were the back­drop of “Bloody Sun­day,” when Bri­tish sol­diers shot and killed 14 un­armed pro­test­ers at a civil rights march in a Catholic neigh­bor­hood in 1972.

“It was in Derry where the Trou­bles started, and it was in Derry where they ended, too,” said Brenda Steven­son, 51, a for­mer mayor here and the niece of the Ir­ish leader John Hume, who shared a No­bel Peace Prize in 1998 for his role in end­ing the con­flict.


Derry Girls Against Borders ac­tivists cam­paign to keep the bor­der open with Ire­land.

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