May 6, 2021

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Northern Ireland turns 100 amid renewed Brexit concerns

Northern Ireland turns 100 amid renewed Brexit concerns

Northern Ireland was created 100 years ago on Monday, but the day passed with little fanfare.

Part of the reason for the low-key commemorations was the coronavirus, with disease precautions holding back large gatherings. But part of the reason was that few were sure exactly what to celebrate.

The six counties that make up the northeastern quadrant of the island are certainly much more peaceful now than during “the Troubles,” some three decades of violent sectarian conflict that largely ended in the late 1990s. But now a big new question mark hangs over the future of Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

Brexit – Britain’s exit from the European Union, which went into effect in January – also took Northern Ireland off the bat. However, it has left behind a number of questions about how to delimit the point where the EU stops and the UK begins, a highly charged issue on both sides of the sectarian divide.

And the past is never far behind. A period of street violence in Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast in late March and April, albeit brief, sparked memories of the bloody events of past decades and illustrated the seething tensions that persist today.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II used the same phrase – “complex history” – to commemorate the creation of Northern Ireland. While Johnson is a political leader known for hyperbole and Elizabeth is a monarch famous for understatement, they were both right about this: it’s complicated.

Johnson acknowledged that it wasn’t a particularly unifying occasion.

“People from all parts of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the UK and around the world will approach this anniversary in different ways, with different perspectives,” he said.

The queen, for her part, expressed the hope of “reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding”.

Here are some background on the province that the partition of Ireland created and what could await it.

Why did Northern Ireland, a century ago, become a separate entity from the Republic of Ireland?

Ireland as a whole has been ruled by Great Britain since the 13thth century onwards, and struggled for a long time to free himself. But proximity to Scotland played a role in the fate of the North. In 17th century, an organized colonization known as the Ulster Plantation brought thousands of mainly Protestant settlers from southern Scotland, as well as England, to the north-east of Ireland, which was then largely rural and Catholic.

After the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein became an Irish republic in 1919, Britain divided the island between what had become the predominantly Protestant north-east and the rest mainly Catholic in the south and west. The formal creation of Northern Ireland took place on May 3, 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act came into effect.

But just as with Monday’s centennial, there was little ceremonial glitz around the original date. Most of the hustle and bustle came with the subsequent opening of Northern Ireland’s new parliament in June 1921. The British King George V traveled to Belfast for the occasion, putting a royal seal of approval on the province’s ties to Great Britain. Brittany.

What were the troubles?

Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, victims of discrimination in employment, housing and other areas of life, embarked on a civil rights movement in the 1960s, but a harshly repressive response led to an escalation of violence.

Beginning in 1968, the conflict raged for about 30 years, turning into a multi-sided civil war fought in civilian neighborhoods. He was driven by militias on both sides and the presence of British forces.

Unionists, mainly Protestants loyal to the British crown, wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, while predominantly Roman Catholic nationalists wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

Although the fighting broke down along sectarian lines, historians say it was not a religious conflict per se, but rooted in deep cultural, social, political and economic divisions. Even now, separate social codes govern everything, from which sports teams must cheer what to order in a pub.

The Troubles, which cost around 3,600 lives, were largely resolved by a meticulously negotiated deal known in various ways as the Good Friday Agreements or the Belfast Agreement, concluded in 1998 by the British government, the Irish government and political parties. of Northern Ireland. Below it, the enemies agreed to disarm and share power.

How does Brexit threaten this peace?

As the Republic of Ireland remains in the EU, Britain’s exit from the EU has raised the specter of physical controls and infrastructure along the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, through which people and goods travel freely as part of the Good Friday agreements. It is now the only land border between Britain and the bloc.

Under pressure from the EU, Ireland and the US Congress, Johnson agreed not to undermine the watershed deal by trying to make that land border a customs choke point for goods between the EU and Britain. .

Instead, the border is actually in the Irish Sea. But Northern Ireland trade unionists, to whom Johnson and other politicians had assured that the province’s status as part of the UK is inviolable, feel betrayed by this formal division between the British province and mainland.

New protocols involving Northern Ireland are still being negotiated between Britain and the EU, and to the annoyance of the blockade, Johnson pushed the expiration of a grace period on some trade requirements in October, rather than the end of March as previously agreed.

“We don’t trust Boris Johnson’s government,” Manfred Weber, a European parliamentary leader, wrote late last month on Twitter.

Will all this increase the pressure for a vote to unite the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Probably not soon, experts in the region say. Britain is expected to approve such a referendum, which Johnson’s conservative government is unlikely to do, in part due to its long-standing ties to trade unionists. A change in sovereignty should be approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit it could give more impetus to efforts to hold a referendum at some point, regional experts said. While the British as a whole voted narrowly to leave the EU, Northern Ireland voted to stay in it. Now, unionists’ feelings of betrayal at the hands of Johnson’s government could change the dynamic of a vote on Irish unity.

Among Protestants, the majority in Northern Ireland, there are fears of a loss of culture and status if the island were united. But the economic opportunity and EU citizenship would also be attractive to many middle-class professionals.

Robert Savage, the director of the Irish Studies program at Boston College, said a vote was likely inevitable at some point, but that even the prospect of one could bring bitter divisions to the fore.

“Say what’s up and 51% say yes, what does it mean for the 49 who don’t?” He said. “Then you have a minority that will be alienated.”


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