(BELFAST, Ireland) — As the countdown approached Friday for Britain to leave the European Union, the only sign it was being marked in Belfast was a small group of people celebrating outside the gates of Northern Ireland’s regional parliament.
Around 50 people gathered at the national assembly building, known as Stormont, and waved union jacks. As the clock passed 11 p.m., a local politician led cheers of “Freedom” and shouts of “Who here is British?”
The tiny celebration reflected the deep ambivalence toward Brexit in Northern Ireland, a place that has been at the center of the United Kingdom’s tortuous saga to leave, and where the event is loaded with unsettling questions about the province’s future. Since before the 2016 referendum, there have been fears that Brexit could destabilize Northern Ireland’s complex peace, raising doubts about its place in the U.K. and stoking talk that it could lead to unification with Ireland.
As in the rest of the U.K., little will have changed on Saturday — the U.K. will now enter a yearlong transition period, where it will negotiate a future relationship with the EU while most arrangements remain temporarily the same. Most people in Belfast on Friday appeared to want to ignore the day, weary of the last three years of argument and recrimination. Around 20 people staged an anti-Brexit protest hours earlier at Stormont, and pro-European activists also held small demonstrations at border crossings with Ireland.
Unlike England, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44% in 2016. Brexit remains so divisive that no official celebrations were organized by Northern Ireland authorities; instead, the rally at Stormont was organized by a few conservative unionist politicians who support Brexit.
The gathering began with a pastor leading a prayer thanking God for delivering Northern Ireland from the “Babylon” of the EU. Members of the crowd, who were mostly in their sixties, sang “God Save the Queen” and a piper played.
“This is a happy day for our nation,” Jim Wells, a unionist member of the national assembly who led countdown to 11 p.m., told the crowd. “This is the day our nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, moves out from the bondage of Europe.”
The pastor leading the prayers asked God that Ireland might also now leave the EU and trigger the union’s collapse as countries fell like dominoes.
But for those celebrating in Northern Ireland, Brexit was not happening as they had hoped. The exit deal agreed upon by Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU will see Northern Ireland remain inside the custom union with the EU, a sacrifice made to avoid a hard land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“I don’t feel like it’s the joyous occasion it should be,” said John Brennan, 35, an office worker and unionist activist at the rally. “I feel like I’m a prisoner being left behind, when all my fellow countrymen are leaving to the glorious green pastures that are outside the European Union.”
For three years Northern Ireland had been the central obstacle to the U.K.’s efforts to leave the EU, the result of the seemingly intractable problem produced by an apparently unavoidable consequence of Brexit — that the U.K. separating from Europe must inevitably mean putting a border between the two.
The prospect of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic immediately triggered fears that it could resurrect Northern Ireland’s conflict between mostly Catholic republicans who support unification with Ireland and the predominantly Protestant unionists and loyalists who support staying with the U.K. The three decades of bombings and shootings, which killed 3,500 people since the late 1960s, were ended by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Any hard border, however, would be unacceptable to republicans, and leaders from both communities warned that it posed a threat to the Good Friday Agreement. The problem was the other proposed solution — treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the U.K. — was unacceptable to unionists, who feared it would push them away from the U.K. and open a path to a united Ireland.
The U.K. government was essentially stuck. After then-prime minister Theresa May lost her majority in an ill-advised election in 2017, her Conservative party found itself dependent on the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, to prop it up. The DUP, which supported Brexit, received an effective veto on its form.
As a result, an exit deal with the EU repeatedly failed to pass the U.K. parliament. The DUP memorably described the stand-off: “This is a battle of who blinks first, and we’ve cut off our eyelids.”
All that changed with Boris Johnson’s landslide election win in December that cleared the way to Friday’s exit. Unshackled by his new majority, Johnson quickly agreed to a deal with the EU that would see border checks placed down the Irish Sea, and then pushed it through parliament.
The move pulled the rug out from under the DUP and unionists, who, having campaigned for Brexit, now found it threatening their union with the U.K.
“The victory and the chance to celebrate and the joy of that win has been stolen off us,” said Jamie Bryson, a prominent Loyalist activist.
Under the current plan, in order to avoid checks along the border with Ireland, EU customs procedures will be applied to Northern Ireland. It means Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the EU’s single market for goods while the rest of the U.K. leaves.
Unionist activists have dubbed the deal the “Betrayal Act” — and fears that the border issue could spark violence from republicans have suddenly switched to concerns about unionists.
After Johnson announced the plans in November, loyalists, including former paramilitary fighters, held meetings across Northern Ireland to discuss how to challenge them. The Newsletter journalist Ben Lowry, one of the only reporters permitted to attend, said the mood was heated — with some asking whether threats of violence would be needed to change the U.K. government’s approach.
Rob McCartney, a loyalist community organizer who was present at several meetings, told ABC News that paramilitary violence has been rejected by loyalists, but that “civil disobedience” was raised at all the meetings.
“Does that mean masked men with guns marching back on the streets? No, it doesn’t!” McCartney said in an interview at the East Belfast Constitutional Club, where one of the meetings was held. “But does it mean picketing ports, protesting, marching? Yes it does,” he said.
The head of Northern Ireland’s police service, Chief Constable Simon Byrne, said in December that he had requested additional officers to prepare for possible loyalist protests. But he said that so far he has not detected “a massive change in sentiment.”
The argument over what form the border checks will take will be at the center of Johnson’s negotiations with the EU. Despite the text of his own agreement, Johnson has promised there will be no checks. The EU has rejected that and on Monday its top negotiator, Michel Barnier in Belfast, said the checks were an “indispensable” part of the agreement.
Bryson said that if the border checks could be made negligible that would be acceptable. He has already begun legal action against Johnson, on the grounds that the plan violates the Good Friday Agreement. Bryson, though, seemed unsure that the legal challenge would succeed.
“I think that this is going to end up with people taking it on the streets,” Bryson said this week. “Unless Boris Johnson comes up with something remarkable, I think that’s where it’s heading, regardless of any legal challenge.”
Others, though, dismiss that unionist opposition can be turned into large protests.
Peter Shirlow, a director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish studies and a veteran expert on unionism, said changes in Northern Irish society have reduced the capacity of hardcore unionist activists to mobilize.
“That section of Loyalism that wants to go back to conflict — it just doesn’t have the capacity to bring people out anymore,” Shirlow said.
After two decades of the peace process, most Northern Irish people have no appetite for a return to violence, he said.
“At the end of the day most people — as much as they might be fed up or angry about the Withdrawal Agreement — it’s not ‘Bloody Friday.’” he said. “It’s not something which is as traumatic or as violent or as motivating as what we had in the past.”
Prominent unionists have also come out against protests. Billy Hutchison, a Belfast city councilor from the Progression Unionist Party, which is aligned with the paramilitary group UVF, told ABC News this week that unionists must focus on politics.
“From my point of view, there’s a political system that allows us to do this work. And while we have a political system, a democracy then there’s no need for violence,” said Hutchinson, who was jailed in the 1970s for murdering two Catholic men.
The perceived threat of Brexit, in particular worries that the border checks and customs arrangements could damage Northern Ireland’s economy, has already produced unexpected unity.
Northern Ireland’s assembly, where power sharing is mandated, had not sat for three years, with unionist and nationalist parties deadlocked over a political dispute. After Johnson’s win, however, they quickly came to a deal to begin governing again, with one of the assembly’s first acts being the united rejection of Johnson’s deal.
Northern Ireland’s newly appointed first minister, Arlene Foster from the DUP, spent the evening of Brexit’s arrival in Dublin, appearing on the popular Late Late Show in a gesture of goodwill toward Ireland.
“Brexit is forcing people to come together,” Sorcha Eastwood, a councilor for the pro-European party Alliance said on Monday. The party, which presents itself as an alternative to the traditional sectarian party choices, surged in the recent election. Eastwood said she did not believe Brexit would lead to fresh conflict.
“I think people in Northern Ireland have had enough of all that,” she said.
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