To understand Brexit, we have to understand the island of Ireland

"Northern Ireland in the early 70's" by Niall Cotton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

At school, I learnt about the Tudors. I learnt about the World Wars and how British troops fought to defend freedom and democracy. I learnt about the history of my school, and about the Industrial Revolution. In all those years of learning however, I never was taught about the island just across the water, a place that has been plagued by violence and war for decades, by the country I call home.

My mother was born in Belfast, but moved to England just before secondary school so I grew up hearing a bit about “The Troubles” and the Good Friday Agreement, but I still had no idea that the conflict wasn’t a thing of the past. As I got older and developed more of an interest in politics, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really think about Ireland. I didn’t think it was that relevant to me, no one ever spoke about it on the news and it seemed that the Good Friday Agreement had solved everything. 

When I started university, I started reading and asking questions, and realised that while the state-sanctioned conflict had all but ended and the Good Friday agreement had brought “peace”; the tension between loyalists and republicans was still very much present, through segregated schools, ruling paramilitary groups, and a wall. Peace in Northern Ireland was very different to the concept I’d grown up believing in, and yet no one was talking about it. When I went to Belfast and actually saw some of these things, I realised there was so much I didn’t know and needed to learn.  Northern Ireland has the highest rate of suicide in the UK, and nearly 28% of people living in low income areas take prescription medication for depressive mood. Segregation is the normality of life in Northern Ireland, with children growing up with very little contact with the alternate side. My parents’ generation in England grew up with attacks and conflict, but once the Good Friday agreement was signed, life pretty much went back to normal. On the island of Ireland, things weren’t that simple.

Recently, with Brexit, people, who in the past have never considered Northern Ireland in relation to the United Kingdom, have started talking about the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, because it’s now relevant to them. Now while the border on the island of Ireland will have trade consequences, what is even more worrying is the risk of conflict restarting. The checks along the border during the Troubles can be linked to countless deaths, and we have seen a rise in tensions in Northern Ireland in the last year. While Brexit cannot be held responsible for all sectarian violence on the island of Ireland, re-addressing issues like a hard border could add fuel to a fire that has been simmering for the past two decades. 

The conflict never really went away after the Good Friday Agreement, it was just subdued. Paramilitary groups took charge of policing the community, avoiding violence but still maintaining a separation between Catholics and Protestants. These groups have now threatened to return to armed conflict after the threat of a hard border. The tragic death of journalist Lyra McKee during a paramilitary riot in (London)Derry has given us a frightening glimpse of what the future may hold if we do not address this situation before it’s too late. A hard border would mean a visible division between Ireland and Northern Ireland; and the memory of that divide during the Troubles is a painful one. Families and businesses were separated by checkpoints, and these were often targets for attacks; meaning that each daily crossing was a risk to life. No one on the island of Ireland wants to return to that. 

I have been grappling with my lack of understanding of the history of the island of Ireland; I am ashamed of how little I know, particularly given that half my family comes from there, and the other half of my heritage can be considered the reason for the conflict. I am also angry with the education system, the government and the media for not giving Northern Ireland and Ireland the attention it deserves. NI hasn’t had a legislative assembly in two years, when Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness resigned after Sinn Fein (the largest republican party) called for Arlene Foster (leader of the DUP – the largest unionist party) to step aside to allow for an investigation. She refused, and so McGuinness resigned and Sinn Fein decided not to replace him. The Good Friday Agreement states that the governance of Northern Ireland must be split between a unionist and a republican party. Without a representative from Sinn Fein, there cannot be a legislative assembly. If this is not resolved before Brexit, it could mean that Westminster directly governs Northern Ireland, which was the case during the Troubles, and again, like the checkpoints, is a situation that carries with it great traumatic memory.  

The Troubles are a part of UK history, and in order to be able to understand current affairs and the impact a hard border on the island of Ireland would have on the very fragile stability in Northern Ireland, we have to understand that past. No one can expect to learn centuries worth of history overnight, but I think it’s important we look at Great Britain’s involvement in horrific acts. It is wonderful that some people have started to engage in the conversation on colonialism, but British people continue to sweep under the rug our complicity in huge numbers of deaths. While it’s certainly not the responsibility of Northern Irish people to explain how the Troubles affected them, reading articles and novels by writers like Fintan O’Toole and Lyra McKee is the best way to understand first hand the history. The Irish Times has some brilliant long form articles on the subject, and there is plenty of literature – Booker Prize shortlisted ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns is the latest in a long line of novels. The situation on the island of Ireland is hugely complicated and while visiting and reading about it may not teach us everything, it’s certainly a start. 

Words by Emma Penney


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