Brexit remains a toxic topic in Northern Ireland

A man looks out at the docks from aboard a ferry, in Belfast, Northern Ireland on September 29, 2020. The outcome of Brexit negotiations could result in a

Philip Hatcher-Moore for “Le Monde”

By Cécile Ducourtieux

Posted today at 11:33 am, updated at 11:49 am

Brian, Gerard and Sean, helmets on their heads, gulp down their ready-made salad in front of the marina in Belfast’s new Titanic district. To their right, we can see the brand new museum dedicated to the fatal liner, to the left, a performance hall. Within three months the UK will have left the European common market and, theoretically, customs controls should have been put in place between Northern Ireland (which, under the terms of the divorce agreement signed in 2019, will maintain partly its alignment with European standards) and the rest of the country.

Passage of the gates of one of the
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Do these renovation workers worry about it? Brian minimizes: “For us, that won’t change anything. But it will be impossible to please everyone, here the communities are too divided. “ In the northern Irish capital, many say their weariness of a Brexit which we have been talking about for four years, and the Covid crisis eclipses many other considerations (the rates of contamination are rising quickly in Belfast, with, on October 11, a average of 440 positive cases per 100,000 inhabitants). The Titanic Quarter “Was still full of tourists at this time last year, coming to see the filming locations of Game Of Thrones “, Brian and his colleagues regret.

However, as soon as one insists, the anguish linked to the divorce from the European Union (EU) very quickly rises to the surface in this British enclave of the island of Ireland, which is despite itself found at the forefront of the difficult separation process (although she voted for y remain at 56%, during the 2016 referendum). Prolonged uncertainty looms large, as negotiations between London and Brussels for the future trade relationship have still not been concluded. Especially on the Unionist side, for whom any even symbolic attack on links with London is perceived as an attack on their British identity.

Brian, Gerard and Sean, on a lunch break in Belfast's new Titanic district on October 2.

Unclosed wounds

It only takes a side step, barely ten minutes on foot from the port (the laughing and modern face of Belfast), to understand how toxic the Brexit debate remains in this city of 350,000 inhabitants, where The wounds are far from being closed, twenty-two years after the signing of the peace treaty that ended the civil war between nationalists (Catholics, pro-unification with the Republic of Ireland) and unionists (Protestants).

In East Belfast, we enter Unionist territory: Union Jacks in banners, incessant references to the British army on the facades. Same sectarianism in West Belfast, where Catholic neighborhoods are still protected from Protestants by high “peace walls” and porticoes that are closed as a precaution every evening at 7 p.m. “Watch out for stones, some keep throwing them”, Taxi driver Marli M’Cann hardly jokes, who takes curious people through the streets most martyred during the “Troubles” (Shankill Road, Cupar Way, etc.). In these neighborhoods, people still live behind windows and latticed backyards, children attend separate denominational schools. “Young people want to move forward”, nevertheless assures Marli, a Protestant, insisting on his rejection of sectarianism, “It is the older generation that remains aggressive.”

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