Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's divisions run deep, but we are no tinderbox awaiting Brexit match

By Suzanne Breen

Brexit could be a ticking time bomb for the peace process. So said Tony Blair and John Major when they visited Northern Ireland last year while campaigning for a Remain vote.

Today's House of Lords committee report doesn't go quite as far, but it does claim Brexit has significantly undermined political stability and exacerbated community tensions here.

Academics are quoted who warn that the return of any physical manifestation of the border post-Brexit would act as "a lightning rod to dissident republicans".

That's over the top. While republicans may attempt to use such a scenario for propaganda purposes, young men and women in Ardoyne and Andersonstown won't go out to kill and be killed over Brexit.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland is split largely along sectarian lines on leaving the EU. Statistical analysis suggests 85% of Catholics voted Remain compared to 41% of Protestants, according to Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool.

But there are clear class divides too. Brexit seems most unpopular among the middle-classes. A total of 46% of UUP supporters voted to remain compared to 30% of DUP supporters. And support for Remain was 6% higher among SDLP than Sinn Fein supporters.

Indeed, in West Belfast fewer than one in two people bothered to vote in the referendum. Sinn Fein is now using Brexit to turn up the political temperature.

Speaking in the European Parliament, Martina Anderson told Theresa May to stick her border "where the sun doesn't shine". Yet Sinn Fein was almost invisible on the ground during the EU poll.

Over the past few weeks we have seen that sectarian divisions still run deep. Even with most of their fans missing, Celtic still can't play Linfield at Windsor Park without incident.

And the effigy of Martin McGuinness in his coffin on an east Belfast bonfire shows that, two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, there has been little meaningful reconciliation.

While Brexit may contribute to the current turmoil, it is wrong to claim that it significantly worsens political instability here, or that it could jeopardise peace.

The report refers to Lord Hain's warning that any physical border controls would be "fraught with danger" for the peace process.

Many people - including unionists living along the border - may oppose customs checkpoints and see them as an inconvenience.

But we certainly aren't on the brink of a return to the border as we knew it.

Those images of military watchtowers and soldiers standing at checkpoints won't be coming back.

The customs checkpoints that had existed along the border for almost half-a-century since partition played no part in violence erupting here in 1969.

That fury was motivated by the denial of civil rights - jobs, housing and political equality.

Many things have changed post-conflict. The British Army is off the streets and the PSNI's relationship with the Catholic community is markedly different to the RUC's.

Deadlock may be crippling Stormont but that doesn't mean we are a political tinderbox awaiting the Brexit match.

The Lords' report claims the Brexit debate undermined political stability and raised tensions "contributing to the collapse of the Executive". Rarely has history been rewritten so soon.

'Cash for ash', Liofa funding, and the deteriorating DUP-Sinn Fein relationship caused the administration to collapse.

That one just can't be blamed on Brexit.

Belfast Telegraph


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