Will Brexit Unravel the Peace in Northern Ireland?

Posted By: October 14, 2016

Jochen Bittner. New York Times.Tuesday, October  11, 2016
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

HAMBURG, Germany — Progress, luckily, is often a self-accelerating force. But what about regression? I’m not alone in worrying about the self-perpetuating cycle of social setbacks; across Europe and America, I encounter more and more people concerned that today’s minor tension or flawed election might become tomorrow’s crisis.

I felt it most strongly on a recent trip to Northern Ireland. The once war-torn region has profited significantly from a series of mutually enforcing developments in the past 20 years. The peace agreement of 1998, growing economic ties to both the Republic of Ireland and the wider European Union and now-ubiquitous technology have all helped cut the jobless rate and create new, previously unthinkable, opportunities.

There is a new energy to Belfast today, a spirit that is in stark contrast to a troubled past. Bars that make you feel you’re in Greenwich Village; seaside lofts along the old gritty shipyard canals; a state-of-the-art Titanic Museum that attracts thousands of tourists who continue on to the tours of “Game of Thrones” film locations. In Belfast, Winterfell is just around the corner.

But so is the real old troubled world of tribes, clans, and a yawning sectarian divide. In West Belfast, the Peace Wall barrier continues to segregate parts of the pro-British Protestant from the pro-Irish Catholic working-class communities. If the absence of political violence is peace, then yes, there is peace. But this doesn’t mean that the society is at ease with itself. Groupthink and mistrust of the other have softened but linger.

Then came the Brexit referendum.

On the morning of June 24, the day after the vote, the colors on the electoral map for Northern Ireland very much resembled the pattern of the conflicting camps known from the Troubles. Most Catholics voted to remain in the European Union; most Protestants wanted to leave. And although the Remain vote won overall with 56 percent, that majority will now be dragged out of the union by the government in London.

This means that a European Union border will run between Northern Ireland and the Republic, most probably with checkpoints and customs controls. Psychologically, this would be a dangerous throwback to an era most thought had passed. For Northern Ireland’s radical fringe, on both sides, it might even reactivate well-rehearsed stimulus-response patterns of decades past — of violent attacks and counterattacks. If the remnants of the Irish Republican Army needed a provocation to take up the fight again, British officials along the border might be just the ticket.

Brian John Spencer is a model citizen of post-Troubles Belfast — the “forward Northern Ireland,” as he calls it. A self-declared Protestant atheist, he is as passionate about his hometown as he is fearful of it. A painter and political blogger turned lawyer with a hipster beard, the 29-year-old took me on a stroll through his city: the Lisburn Road with its gourmet shops and art galleries and the Cathedral Quarter with its thriving nightlife.

He stopped me in front of an engraving that hangs next to a pub wall. This stone plate, Brian said, carried his favorite poem, by Maurice Craig: “It’s to hell with the future and live on the past/May the Lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast.”

Why is this prayer-poem so important to him? Because, Brian replied, he is anxious about the re-emergence not so much of widespread violence but of social regression. The forces of “backward Northern Ireland,” he said, still have the unfair advantage of ferocious temper over the new, cool Belfast: “There are these deep ancestral passions of Orange versus Green. Like many Trump supporters in the U.S., many disaffected people here believe their way of life is in lethal danger. What they have is their flag and the vanity of small differences. When they shriek, they shriek very loudly, when they lash out, they lash out very violently, in a way the cool cannot engage.”

Brexit has reinforced these anachronistic passions. At its base lies the promise of a strong sense of identity (we, the British, against them, the immigrants). People like Brian fear a vicious cycle: The growing legal uncertainties under Brexit could make many companies move from Belfast to Dublin; a rise in unemployment would increase frustration, catalyze a brain drain, radicalize society and endanger the social and political progress achieved over so many years.

Unfortunately, many politicians in Northern Ireland don’t seem to understand these concerns. “The details need to be worked out,” one member of the governing, pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party told me.

It’s a staggering understatement to call a new inner-Irish border a “detail.” But it is just one of many similar statements that betray the vast gulf between the carefree Brexit campaign and the grave consequences of its success.

Brexit is perhaps the most compelling example of the unfair advantage enjoyed in modern democracies by “shriek” scaremongering issues over sober interest politics. True, limiting immigration can be in the national interest. But it is also an identity issue, one that can swamp everything else — even an achievement as historic as the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Brexit fallout in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland should serve as a warning against the wider trend toward post-empirical, tribalist politics. The tendency to replace arguments with feelings makes one think of the tragic parable delivered by the Titanic, once Belfast’s proudest export. It was rationality, the hard work of many over years, that built it. It was emotion, the lust of a few for power and speed, that destroyed it in minutes.