LONDONDERRY (Reuters) – Just a few kilometers from the border with Ireland, the people of Northern Ireland’s second city of Londonderry know exactly what is at stake as Britain seeks to seal its departure from the European Union.
Almost 50 years ago, the city became the center of Northern Ireland’s conflict, referred to as the “Troubles”, when British troops shot dead 13 unarmed civilians during a civil rights demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
More recently, it has been the focal point of a rise in the kind of violence that still stunts progress in the British-run region.
The conundrum Brexit negotiators hope they have solved with Thursday’s draft divorce agreement was how to secure Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the EU without erecting checkpoints along the 500-km (300-mile) border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Many fear that a return to a visible ‘hard’ border could undermine a 1998 peace accord which mostly ended three decades of bloody, sectarian conflict that left some 3,600 people dead.
When agreeing the deal, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that peace was what really mattered.
That is a sentiment shared by Derry native Richard Moore, who was blinded at the age of 10 when a British soldier fired a rubber bullet at him as he ran home from school, just a few months after Bloody Sunday.
“My children never really experienced the conflict the way I experienced it, they were born just around the time that peace was beginning to visit this part of the world,” said Moore, who founded a charity to help children in impoverished countries.
But the three years of often acrimonious Brexit talks have been destabilizing to the hard-won peace, he said.
“Now… young people are facing the same challenges and what you would be worried about is all the arguments presented over many years to support the peaceful approach and reject violence, all those arguments now will be lost and the people who want to support violence can attempt to justify their approach.”
“If anything, I’m a living proof that violence is wrong. Let’s not go back to that,” he said.
The Good Friday Agreement settled the conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists seeking union with Ireland and predominantly Protestant unionists wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom, creating a shared regional government and handing an economic lifeline to many. Former paramilitaries on both sides gave up their weapons, with some entering politics.
In 2013, the once-feared British army barracks became the headquarters of Derry-Londonderry’s year as the UK City of Culture – a double-barreled title reflecting the fact that many locals refer to their hometown simply as Derry.
But not everyone supported the peace deal and small hold-out militant groups still stage sporadic gun and bomb attacks. Recently, the city has witnessed an upsurge in violence, particularly among Irish nationalist youths in some of its poorest parts.
The high profile killing of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee in one of those areas in April during a riot sparked outrage.
Few in the city predict a return to the kind of bloodshed of the past if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal and checks re-emerge in or around the border. However, those who lived through the decades of conflict do not want to put the fragile peace to the test.
“I think at times that it is blown out of perspective, that they (militant groups) are not as important as maybe they think they are,” said Carita Kerr, who is in her 70s, at a cross-community women’s book group for Catholics and Protestants.
But that is not to say that they could not do “a lot of damage,” she added.
“We came through it before and we don’t want to go back to anything like that,” she said.
The Brexit deal reached between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU would keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs area, but tariffs would apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they are deemed to be headed into the bloc’s single market.
Among those not happy with those terms are Johnson’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose opposition complicates the task his minority government faces in ratifying the agreement.
Unionist politicians – whose name reflects their loyalty to the union of Northern Ireland and Britain – are worried that the introduction of customs and tax regimes different to the rest of the UK could undermine their place in the union shared with England, Scotland and Wales.
In ‘The Fountain’ area of Londonderry, a tight, fiercely pro-British community that is separated by high walls and fences from the surrounding Irish nationalist heartland, there is also a fear that any changes could lead Northern Ireland on a path to another referendum – this time on the reunification of Northern Ireland with Ireland.
“We just want to live in peace and we want to get on… with our lives in this beautiful city,” said Jeanette Warke at the Cathedral Youth Club, a center she set up in 1972 with her late husband to try to keep Protestant children away from violence.
“We’ve no problems going over the border ourselves to the south but we really want to stay in our own Northern Ireland and be part of the United Kingdom and that’s the way we feel. If it’s not broken, why fix it?”
In 2016, 56% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, with many wary of the developments that Brexit could bring to their area.
Surrounded by walls filled with posters of Che Guevara and other left wing figures at the well known Sandinos bar in Derry, veteran civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann, who grew up in the almost exclusively Catholic Bogside neighborhood, said divisions would always exist in Northern Ireland and the city.
But Brexit, he said, had exacerbated those divisions and could potentially give them “a jagged edge.”
“For as long as we are divided, there is always potential for abrasion at the interfaces,” said McCann, 76, now a local councillor with the small People Before Profit socialist party.
“So there is a lurking and permanent possibility that the Troubles as we call them here will burst out again. I don’t expect that to happen but it’s there and at the back of many minds, including mine, it’s a worry for the future.”
“All the conditions are there, it just needs a spark.”
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