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Will Brexit Return Northern Ireland to War or Reinforce the Status Quo?

Will Brexit Return Northern Ireland to War or Reinforce the Status Quo?

Carolyn Gallaher and Kimberly Cowell-Meyers (American University, Washington, DC.)


A lot has been written about what Brexit may do to the British economy and its place in the world. People are also finally starting to pay attention to what Brexit may mean for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. But what does Brexit mean on the ground in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, where most of the conflict’s deaths occurred? Will it usher in a new era of violence or reinforce the status quo—an incomplete peace?

Some people worry that Brexit has real potential to reignite Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Both the January car bomb in Derry as well as the murder of journalist Lyra McKee have a lot of people on edge. The New IRA, which was held responsible for both incidents, is also reportedly recruiting young people in Derry.

A lot of evidence suggests that these fears are overstated. First and foremost, neither the car bombing nor McKee’s murder had anything to do with Brexit. The riot that McKee died covering was a response to aggressive policing in a Republican neighborhood known as a New IRA stronghold. Like other dissident Republicans before them, the New IRA is re-litigating the 1998 peace agreement, and the Provisional IRA’s decision to sign onto it. Moreover, most experts agree that dissident Republicans are nowhere near as organized or provisioned as the Provisionals were in the late 1960s at the start of the conflict. Nor do Catholics face the same kinds of systematic oppression that led them to support the IRA in the first place. Dissident Republicans just aren’t very popular among the wider nationalist population.

However, we do have reason to be worried. Even though Brexit wasn’t behind either incident in Derry, Brexit is eroding an already frayed peace process that kept many such incidents at bay. The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have been suspended since 2017. With Brexit on the horizon, and the DUP playing a prominent role in Theresa May’s government, neither of Northern Ireland’s two main parties has much to gain politically by sitting down to negotiate. The DUP sees Brexit as a vehicle for bringing Northern Ireland more firmly back into the British fold, while Sinn Fein believes a hard Brexit could lead to a vote for a United Ireland. This is exacerbated by the fact that Ireland and Britain’s divergent views on the future of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland have limited their moral authority and strategic resources to push the parties for a compromise.

With both parties retired to their quarters, there are also precious few pressure points they can apply to keep calm on the streets. To understand why, it helps to go back to the underlying assumption behind the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The agreement pulled paramilitaries in on two grounds. First, it offered to release prisoners associated with any paramilitary that signed onto the accord. Second, it laid out an avenue for paramilitaries and their associated communities to redress their concerns politically. This was especially relevant to Catholic communities who had faced systematic oppression and political exclusion before and during the Troubles. With the Executive collapsed, the parties have nothing new to offer their constituents.

On the ground, this means that the ongoing needs for reconciliation—at interfaces and in disenfranchised areas—are left to fester. Dissident Republicans are waging their rearguard action from places peace never or only fleetingly reached (the same dynamic holds in Loyalist neighborhoods as well), places of profound economic and social deprivation. As Patrick Kingsley notes in The New York Times, partially due to British austerity measures implemented under the Conservatives, Derry has the slowest-growing economy of cities in the UK, and Creggan, the neighborhood where McKee was killed, sees one-third to one-half of its children growing up in poverty.

In one of her last essays before she died, McKee asked why “more people took their own lives in the 16 years after the Troubles than died during them”? McKee cites intergenerational trauma as a key reason. People who are traumatized find it hard to lay aside anger, depression, and anxiety when interacting with their parents, spouses, and kids. Kids absorb the trauma, even if they can’t understand what it is or why they have it. At the same time, they feel guilty because they know (and are often told) that they’ve had it easy. They didn’t experience first-hand the violence their parents had to cope with on a regular basis. It’s no wonder, McKee argued, that suicides are greater now than they were during the conflict, and that ceasefire babies account for nearly 25% of them. Trauma persists and has mutated in ugly ways.

On top of that, in the absence of a reconciliation process aimed at reintegrating them into society, the paramilitaries never really went away in a lot of working-class neighborhoods. After 1998, paramilitaries turned their focus inward. Some started preying on their own people.   These groups go by different names—hard men, hoods with guns, dissidents—but their tactics are similar. They use intimidation, kneecappings and other forms of rough ‘justice’ to assert their power. When coupled with intergenerational trauma, the result is despair in pockets of Belfast and Derry.

In a political vacuum, Brexit has caused/exacerbated, the hoods, the hard men, and the dissidents become political figures—people with the power to make decisions and shape the future—even if only by default. Brexit didn’t give rise to these folks, but it is giving them a pretext to play their hand of cards more aggressively—for control of illicit activity or turf or and agenda setting, all the things that breed further disillusionment with the peace process.

Brexit lays bare the uncompleted work of the peace accords on the ground and closes doors to finishing the job. The real problem Brexit poses is not so much that it might lead to a return to war but that the work of reconciliation and peace-building might stop. Both of Northern Ireland’s political parties should ensure that the shape of Brexit doesn’t make things worse. And, they should find a way to address the very neighborhoods peace left behind. Twenty years of peace hasn’t been easy, but it definitely beats what happened before.


Carolyn Gallaher is Professor and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC.

Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is Assistant Professor at the Department of Government, American University, Washington, DC.

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