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As Brexit Pulls Britain Apart, It Could Bring Ireland Back Together


We have a dispatch now from the not-so-United Kingdom (ph). As the U.K. prepares for Brexit, some people in Northern Ireland consider leaving the U.K. to rejoin Ireland to the south. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Belfast.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Leaving the EU requires Britain to create a new customs border. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants one that divides Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., and that means some Northern Irish businesses will have to pay tariffs on products coming from the rest of the country, which would be a little like a company in California paying tariffs on products from Oregon.


LANGFITT: All this has Chris Suitor rethinking how he does business with his homeland. Suitor runs Suitor Brothers. It's a menswear company in Belfast. And because of the new administrative costs, he may stop buying from the U.K. and import all his stock from the south, meaning Ireland and the European Union.

CHRIS SUITOR: I'm a U.K. business. I'm a U.K. citizen. I would love to continue our U.K. relationship. But for the good of the business - if it's tariff-free and admin-free to trade North-South, I will be looking to taking my business there.

LANGFITT: Suitor says Brexit is a setback for a region - or a country, as Northern Ireland is considered inside the United Kingdom - that's been making a comeback since the political violence of the 1980s.

SUITOR: We were in the doldrums, in the dark ages for so long with The Troubles. Now that that's behind us in the past, this little country has flourished. I think that essence is getting lost in this whole Brexit process, which is sad.

LANGFITT: The island of Ireland was partitioned nearly a century ago, dividing the North from the South.


LANGFITT: The Troubles pitted Catholic nationalists, who wanted to reunify the island, against Protestant unionists determined to stay a part of the U.K. More than 3,600 people died in the conflict, including 13-year-old Leanne Murray, who was killed by an IRA bomb blast in 1993.


LANGFITT: Her brother, Gary, was on the Shankill Road, which back then was home to many Protestant gunmen, when he heard the explosion.

GARY MURRAY: So I then run straight back there into the rubble. And I started digging the best way I could, looking for my sister. It was pandemonium. Like, you know, everybody was searching, and nobody could find her.

LANGFITT: If Brexit draws the North into Ireland's economic orbit, Gary Murray worries that people loyal to Britain will take up arms.

MURRAY: It's really frightening people because the way things can turn. Rumors are that trouble can be started all over again. I certainly don't want that after what I've been through.

LANGFITT: What's your greatest fear?

MURRAY: Going back to The Troubles.

LANGFITT: This is Shankill Road. And today, people are out walking around shopping. But every couple of blocks, what's so striking is you see a memorial to the dead from The Troubles. Right now, I'm looking up at a big archway and a big marble stone that says, in memory of five innocent Protestants slaughtered by IRA gunmen who came and blew up and shot up a bar in 1975.


LANGFITT: Gordon Young (ph) is shooting pool at WAVE Trauma Centre, which supports victims and survivors of the troubles. He says, by backing customs board if it splits the country, Boris Johnson is selling out Northern Ireland.

GORDON YOUNG: The British - the Protestant people will not accept it. The English should be ashamed of themselves for even voting on this thing because we're part of the United Kingdom, and that's where we belong.

LANGFITT: How did you feel when you first heard about the deal personally?

YOUNG: I felt let down completely. I'm a Protestant. I'm a unionist. I believe in the United Kingdom.

LANGFITT: Some people are concerned...

YOUNG: About the Good Friday Agreement?

LANGFITT: Well - and just also about reunification eventually.

YOUNG: No, there won't be no unification, that's one thing for sure. There will be a lot of blood spilt before then.

LANGFITT: The Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998. And because the North was in both the EU and the United Kingdom, there was no need for a border. Most people in Northern Ireland wanted to keep it that way and voted against Brexit. Duncan Morrow teaches politics at Ulster University in Belfast.

DUNCAN MORROW: The problem of Brexit is that Brexit says we need borders. And borders are the opposite of what the Good Friday Agreement was about.

LANGFITT: Naomi Long leads Northern Ireland's centrist Alliance Party, which draws support from both Catholics and Protestants. She says Brexit has thrust the question of reunifying the island back on the public agenda.

NAOMI LONG: I didn't think I would see a united Ireland in my lifetime. I expected that it would be a generation or two before that Pandora's box was reopened. But Brexit has reopened that prematurely and at a time when, frankly, I don't think our society has matured enough to be able to have rational, logical and peaceful conversations about those issues.

LANGFITT: A poll in September found a slim majority in Northern Ireland supporting reunification. A far larger majority predicted that, a decade from now, a reunification vote would pass.


LANGFITT: This has fired up Sinn Fein, one of Northern Ireland's largest parties. Once the political arm of the IRA, Sinn Fein is still bent on bringing the two Irelands together, though, now through peaceful means. Sinn Fein's John Finucane - he's the lord mayor of Belfast - spoke about reunification at a recent community meeting.

JOHN FINUCANE: Not only is this possible, but I believe it's inevitable in the time ahead. Brexit is a serious direct threat to Ireland's future, political stability and economic prosperity. These changes require new thinking and a radical and innovative response.

DIANE DODDS: I don't think that that is in any way a realistic prospect in the immediate or near future.

LANGFITT: Diane Dodds is a member of the European Parliament with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which is devoted to staying in the U.K. She says there are big barriers to reunification. For instance, Northern Ireland is one of the U.K.'s poorest regions and relies on more than $13 billion in subsidies from London each year, which, Dodds points out, the Irish government might have to finance.

DODDS: The hit to the Republic of Ireland's economy - were to actually provide the same level for the same levels of services and public services in Northern Ireland - would be just, I think, beyond anything that they could actually manage with.

LANGFITT: Which raises the question, would people in Ireland back reunification once they considered the cost? It's unclear how all of this will play out, but Naomi Long of the Alliance Party isn't optimistic.

LONG: I think we will be a poorer place as a result of Brexit. I think we will be a more unstable place politically. I think that Northern Ireland's future within the U.K. is less certain than it has ever been, certainly in my lifetime.

LANGFITT: All because of a referendum more than three years ago that most people in Northern Ireland voted against.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Belfast.