Brexit Stokes Divisions in Divided Belfast

A Roman Catholic funeral procession passes by murals on Falls Road in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, celebrating pro-Irish combatants during the Troubles and also Palestinian resistance against Israel. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CN) — On Shankill Road in Belfast, the Union Jack flies from flagpoles, Queen Elizabeth II is revered and murals on buildings celebrate rifle-wielding pro-British paramilitary fighters. On this Protestant street, most people want Brexit to happen — the sooner the better.

In a parallel world less than half a mile away, there’s Falls Road. Here, the Irish tricolor flies from flagpoles and is draped in shop windows, slogans on walls denounce the British as imperialists and murals on buildings celebrate rifle-wielding pro-Irish paramilitary fighters.

On this Catholic street, most people want Brexit to be done away with — the sooner the better.

A building wall on Shankill Road in West Belfast celebrates Queen Elizabeth II. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

The opposing views found in these West Belfast neighborhoods illustrate how the bitter political fight over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is opening old wounds and reawakening dormant conflicts in Northern Ireland, a country still haunted by the Troubles and its riots, bombings and shootings.

The fear is that Brexit could unravel the peace that prevails here. Such fears were heightened last week when a police raid on a pro-Irish neighborhood in Derry led to a riot and the killing of a journalist covering the unrest.

Inside a hardware store next to Falls Road, its front display adorned with Irish flags, 61-year-old owner Joseph Flynn is disgusted with Brexit.

“The British government is making a complete mess of it. They don’t care about Ireland. Never have, never will,” says Flynn, a self-described pro-Irish republican. “There’s nothing for Ireland in this whole Brexit.”

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55.8 percent of voters in Northern Ireland chose to stay in the EU. Generally, those who are pro-British and Protestant voted to cut ties with the EU, and bolster British unity, while pro-Irish and Catholic voters want to remain in the EU, and thereby keep relations with the Republic of Ireland tight. The pro-Brexit side won, when about 52 percent of voters across the UK favored leaving the EU.

Brexit, then, renewed divisions in a country struggling to bring Protestants and Catholics together.

Although Flynn opposes Brexit, he sees a potential advantage coming out of it: It could make people so fed up with Britain that a majority might support the long-running cause of Irish republicans: to unify Ireland and get rid of British rule.

“It will happen. It’s only a matter of time. This here (Brexit) will only speed it up,” Flynn says.

Girls play along Shankill Road near a mural celebrating slain members of the Red Hand Commando, a pro-British paramilitary group. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

British rule in Northern Ireland, the cause of decades of violence, remains a source of deep resentment among many Irish. A referendum on whether Northern Ireland should be incorporated into the Republic of Ireland is countenanced under the Good Friday agreement, the 1998 peace treaty that helped end the Troubles.

“For the British, Brexit is about their identity, the right to make their own decisions,” says David Voyle, a 41-year-old activist in the Falls Road neighborhood. He is pushing for prosecution of British paratroopers involved in the shooting death of his grandmother and other civilians in 1971 during the Troubles.

He continues: “It’s about the pride of the crown and the queen. They like to think that the queen rules over them, and the EU takes away certain parts of their culture and identity. For us Irish, Brexit is going to bring on a united Ireland question — by all means, bring it on.”

Over on Shankill Road, there’s no love for the EU and its bureaucrats and politicians.

“Get out!” a man inside a general store shouts. “They’re manipulating bastards!”

His shouts elicit laughter and grins: No one here disagrees.

Jake Mercury, a friend who’s helping move boxes in the store, takes up the case against the EU. He rattles off pro-Brexit arguments.

“Europe has too much say,” he says, echoing a common complaint about the EU’s powers over legislation. Then he laments that EU membership means keeping the UK’s borders open.

“There are too many immigrants coming into the country. Now, that’s not being racist. That’s being a concerned citizen,” he says. “We need to control and maintain our culture.”

Mercury is worried that Brexit won’t happen at all because of the deadlock in Parliament in London. For months, a divided House of Commons has been unable to agree on a divorce deal with the EU that spells out the terms of the UK’s exit. As a consequence, Brexit has been delayed.

“The majority of people voted for Brexit,” he says. “You can’t go against the will of the people. People will lose faith in politics.”

He doesn’t like the dithering by Parliament. “People should listen to Nigel Farage and be courageous,” he says, referring to the pro-Brexit far-right British politician who says the UK should simply crash out of the EU without a deal. “If there is no deal, there is no deal. We can manage,” Mercury says.

He dismisses fears that Brexit — especially the kind advocated by Farage, which could lead to a return of border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland — might reignite sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

“They’re using scare tactics,” he says. “There are only small pockets of resistance among (pro-Irish) republicans who will use Brexit as a consequence. The IRA will not shoot and bomb their way into a united Ireland.”

Mercury says the majority of people want peace. “Protestants and Catholics don’t want a return to violence.”

Outside and farther down Shankill Road, Taubie McGuire, an unemployed 19-year-old, is of a similar mind.

“We need to take back our country and make our laws,” he says.

He too dismisses concerns that Brexit could reignite Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

“I don’t feel that it is bringing back the Troubles,” he says. “Now Catholics come on the Shankill and drink at bars. Twenty years ago they would have been shot.”

Like so many others, his family was affected by the violence. He says a cousin was killed during the Troubles and his mother narrowly missed being injured when an IRA bomb exploded inside a fish shop on Shankill Road in 1993, killing 10.

He welcomes Northern Ireland’s key position in the politics of Brexit. Northern Ireland’s dominant Protestant political party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is playing a kingmaker’s role in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government.

“You can fit all of Northern Ireland into London, probably a couple of times, but we’re holding more sway at the moment than London,” McGuire says. “Without us, Theresa May doesn’t have a government. Without us, Jeremy Corbyn could take over — and that would be worse for us Protestants. Corbyn is a known sympathizer for the IRA.”

Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the opposition Labour Party, is viewed by many British loyalists in Northern Ireland as a danger because of his ties to Sinn Féin, the left-wing Irish party considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, and because of his support for a united Ireland.

Back on Falls Road, Sinn Féin signs are affixed to poles: “No Border, No Brexit.”

Over here on Falls Road, people are exasperated by the power the Democratic Unionist Party wields since May’s Conservative government relies on their 10 votes in Parliament to hold onto power.

“Brexit is being dictated by the DUP,” says Peter Hughes, a 63-year-old amputee, taking a break from a computer class. “They are anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-republican,” he says. “They are in a position of power and they hope to ransom the British government.”

A mural on Falls Road in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, celebrates James Connolly, an Irish republican and socialist who was a leader against British rule during the Easter Rising in 1916. (CNS photo/Cain Burdeau)

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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