February 26, 2024

Before she died in 2013, Dolours Price, a Provisional Irish Republican Army guerrilla, started granting interviews. She described planting I.R.A. bombs and driving people to their executions, smuggling explosives and going on hunger strike in a British prison.

But it was Ms. Price’s memories of girlhood in 1950s Northern Ireland that kept running through my mind during a recent trip to this city. Ms. Price was born into an era of Catholic disenfranchisement under British rule — job discrimination, vote suppression and barriers to housing and education. Most of all, Ms. Price told the journalist Ed Moloney, her family resented having been left inside Britain — abandoned to live under a government they considered foreign — when six northern counties were partitioned from the rest of the island after Irish independence.

“We were very angry people, actually, the rump of republicans that were left behind in Belfast,” Ms. Price said. “We always regarded the fact that when they signed away the six counties, they actually signed us away.”

Talking now with people in Northern Ireland, I hear eerily similar complaints. Minority angst. Fears of abandonment. Indignation over laws regarded as foreign.

The mind-bending distinction is that, this time, it’s the unionists — the largely Protestant faction clinging fiercely to British citizenship and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom — who question the terms of the peace they live under and struggle to articulate their future.

And it’s the Irish nationalists — those, largely Catholic, who regard the partition of Ireland as an untenable injustice — who are brimming with confidence. Demographics and voter enthusiasm have been moving in their favor, and the once-distant republican dream of a united Irish island, free from British rule, seems more possible every day — thanks, paradoxically, to the British initiative of Brexit.

It’s easy to miss the historical shifts provoked here by Britain’s divorce from the European Union. Dull wrangling over customs declarations, goods inspections and tariffs have camouflaged a profound debate over national identity. Brexit meant that Northern Ireland was marooned between the European trade laws that hold sway in the Republic of Ireland and the British codes of their own government across the Irish Sea.

Brexit negotiators tried to figure out a formula to accomplish the impossible: They wanted to avoid the destabilizing effects of a “hard border” through the Irish island while maintaining the legal obligations of British rule in the north and European membership on the rest of the island. In the end Europe — which is to say, Ireland — largely prevailed. Trade barriers came into force — not along the border that splits the island, but between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

To many alarmed unionists, the trade arrangements imply that, citizenship and borders notwithstanding, Northern Ireland is more inextricably linked to the Republic of Ireland than it is to the United Kingdom.

Jim Allister, the hard-line head of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, put unionist fears succinctly during a recent appearance on the BBC’s popular talk-radio broadcast “The Nolan Show.”

“Unite Ireland economically,” Mr. Allister warned starkly, “and you’re well on your way to uniting it politically.”

***

One drizzly morning, I joined a political walking tour to hear former combatants of the Troubles show off Belfast landmarks and tell their stories. Almost everything about this notion piqued my curiosity: the commodification of violence into a tourist product; the idea that “politics” was actually history. Most of all, though, I found myself wondering what the unionists would say.

As we strolled among the murals and monuments of the historic Catholic hub of the Falls Road, a former guerrilla named Pod (no last name offered) regaled the group with the proud horrors of the hunger strikers, the evils of plastic bullets, the endless colonial mischief of the British. He described a struggle that had transitioned from street combat to kitchen table politics and, judging from his tone, was going along smoothly.

Eventually Pod walked us through a gate in the “peace wall” — the inaptly named barricades that tower between traditionally Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast, locked overnight and, famously, inching taller as time passes — and handed us over to a former British soldier who introduced himself as Mike.

Where Pod had been brisk and upbeat, Mike seemed to brim with indignation. He was a bulky man with a ghost of a beard clinging to his jawline and big red eyes that sometimes looked to quiver with unshed tears.

Mike’s story began in a place I found unfamiliar and, frankly, dubious: In a cozy, bygone day when the sectarian communities lived peacefully together, basically equal in their shared poverty. Everything had been just fine, Mike suggested, until suddenly the Catholics started killing people.

We wandered down Shankill Road, which was festooned with Union Jack flags, and paintings of Ulster paramilitary gunmen and British royals. The unionists’ foundational monarch, William of Orange — celebrated for slaughtering Jacobite forces (who were predominantly Catholic) and securing Protestant domination of the Irish island — stared disdainfully down from walls.

Mike was talking about the political failure that had taken place after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement quieted more than a quarter-century of fighting. Northern Ireland, he told us, was still “a tinderbox.”

“We don’t live together,” he said. “We don’t go to school together.”

We paused at the sites of various I.R.A. bombings while Mike described the carnage wrought by the republican guerrillas among civilians. He encouraged us to linger over plaques with bloody photographs; condemnations of former guerrillas who now serve with Sinn Fein, the unabashedly republican party that has evolved from the outlawed political wing of the I.R.A. into the most influential political force across the island; and slogans proclaiming Sinn Fein worse than ISIS.

“We can’t have a government with that,” he said.

But there isn’t any other government on offer. “That” is Sinn Fein which, for the first time, claimed the largest share of Northern Ireland assembly seats in last year’s election. The win was repeated this year, when voters gave Sinn Fein the most seats in local elections.

Michelle O’Neill, the first minister designate, is a second-generation Sinn Fein activist and the daughter of a formerly imprisoned I.R.A. member. Her leadership role in the Northern Ireland parliamentary halls that were, for generations, a stronghold of powerful unionist men, will make history.

But not the right kind of history for Mike.

***

In the simpler decades of peace before Brexit, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland belonged to the E.U. single market, allowing goods to flow seamlessly from Manchester to Belfast to Dublin. Checkpoints that dotted the border during the violence of the Troubles were gone — the crossing between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland has been virtually invisible in recent decades, with no traffic stops in either direction.

Grappling with Brexit, the Irish government and nationalists in the north were adamant: A “hard border” slicing across the island, they argued, could destabilize a hard-won peace and become a target for terrorist attacks. The British government agreed: The appearance of inspection stations and other infrastructure along the legal border was a bad idea.

In 2020, Boris Johnson, as prime minister of Britain, famously blustered that a border would go in the Irish Sea “over my dead body.” But that’s exactly where the border ended up. Now, by the time cargo ships can unload their goods in Northern Ireland, they’ve effectively crossed into the European Union. Inspections, declarations and tariffs are handled at ports in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is subject to E.U. trade law and customs codes; the United Kingdom is being treated as a separate government.

The governments have tried to ease restrictions — creating a “green lane” for some of the cargo destined to stay in Northern Ireland — to make this new system more palatable (which is to say, less obvious), but it doesn’t change the underlying reality. Borders and allegiances have shifted, and all kinds of people in Northern Ireland are openly rethinking their future.

“We were relatively stable, we were making good progress, and nobody was really talking about constitutional change,” said Mike Nesbitt, a unionist lawmaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly. “And suddenly, with that one vote, it’s part of the daily political discourse. Irish nationalists feel they are on an inevitable path to reunification.

“I’d disagree,” Mr. Nesbitt added, “but this is the confidence and the momentum they have because of Brexit.”

The idea of a united (or, perhaps better to say, reunited) Ireland is hardly new. Irish republicans have always preached unity as the island’s inevitable destiny. It was this lodestar that helped inspire repeated uprisings and bouts of violence through the generations — most recently, the bloody churn of the Troubles, which killed more than 3,500 people from the late 1960s well into the 1990s.

But it’s one thing to daydream about national destiny and quite another to lay the groundwork for a referendum that could result in a united Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement is rightfully revered. But the specific bargain that was struck for peace is less frequently analyzed. Besides creating a power-sharing government, the agreement gave Northern Ireland a way to emerge from British control. The six counties may leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland if a majority of the people vote to do so, the agreement says. If a vote for unification appears likely to pass, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland is required to hold a referendum.

Social changes that started long before Brexit have been conspiring in favor of an eventual referendum. The 2021 census found that for the first time, there are more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. Younger voters are generally more likely than their parents to support a united Ireland, polls suggest, and to vote for Sinn Fein.

The push toward unification is not all cultural identity and grand politics; practicality also plays a role. The Republic of Ireland is no utopia, but people there enjoy lower poverty rates, higher educational attainment and longer life expectancy than their counterparts in Northern Ireland. While the U.K. economy is relatively tepid, Ireland is setting up a sovereign wealth fund with the budget surplus it’s getting, partly from corporate taxes.

Proponents say they won’t start agitating for a referendum until they can present a clear and thorough picture of what unification would entail — costs, benefits and basic function. Many point to Brexit as a fresh and vivid example of the folly of having people vote on an overarching change without explaining the ramifications.

“Nobody on this island wants a repeat of the Brexit mess,” said Colin Harvey, a Queens University Belfast law professor and member of Ireland’s Future, which campaigns for unification. “It’s essential that people know what they’re voting for or against.”

Discussions of Irish unity, or euphemisms such as a “new Ireland” or “constitutional change,” are everywhere. Even among the least likely parties.

Wallace Thompson, an evangelical Protestant figurehead and uncompromising founding member of the Democratic Unionist Party, shocked followers in September by echoing the republican mantra that some form of Irish unity is “an inevitability.” Mr. Thompson, who once argued sincerely that the pope was “the Antichrist,” is now questioning aloud the feasibility of staying in the United Kingdom — the defining political tenet of his career.

“Unionism as a philosophy probably was always in many ways doomed because of Ireland’s nature, the fact that the north was carved off from the south,” Mr. Thompson said in a bombshell interview with The Belfast Telegraph. “Do we recognize that we can’t keep doing this?”

Instead of ignoring reality, Mr. Thompson said, unionists should protect their interests by engaging in discussions about what a “new Ireland” would look like. “This is the problem with unionism,” he said. “We’re in denial, constant denial.”

Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, or prime minister, of Ireland, a mild-mannered doctor whose image is more wonky and corporate than radical republican, also made waves in September by saying that he expects to see a united Ireland in his lifetime.

There is, of course, a resonance to all of this. It was the British government in 1921, in a ham-handed effort to disentangle itself from a bloody Irish War of Independence while mollifying loyalists in the north, that first cut the Irish island in two.

Six northern counties, carefully chosen because they were believed to guarantee a perpetual Protestant majority, were broken away from the newly created Irish Free State (which remained a British dominion until 1949) to remain part of the United Kingdom. But that peacemaking arrangement, as Ms. Price pointed out, ended up laying the groundwork for the next eruption of bloodshed by trapping an oppressed Catholic minority in a state many resented.

I met Martin Mallon, a Sinn Fein activist and former British prisoner, in the espresso bar of a community center newly built among farmlands in Northern Ireland’s County Tyrone, a rolling landscape that was once a hotbed of paramilitary activity. Unlike the people I’d met in Belfast, who took pains to avoid sectarian labels now deemed outdated and somewhat inaccurate, Mr. Mallon un-self-consciously described the communities as Catholic and Protestant. He mentioned the demographic changes and the ongoing talk of a unified Ireland. “Now people say, ‘You could’ve just waited.’” He chuckled, then got serious again. “But no. I don’t think so. If we hadn’t stood up, the Catholics would still be on their knees.”

When academics or Sinn Fein politicians talk about Irish unity, they tend to linger on the topic of minorities — by which they mean disenchanted unionists, the most potentially destabilizing force on the island.

One afternoon I rode out to a seaside resort town on the outskirts of Belfast to meet Jamie Bryson, a young firebrand who plays a ubiquitous but opaque role in the politics of Northern Ireland. He rose to prominence in 2012 as a street protest leader after the Belfast City Council voted that the British flag, which had flown from the roof of City Hall every day since 1906, would be raised only on 18 specified dates a year.

Mr. Bryson’s street activism landed him in jail. He has publicly defended outlawed Ulster paramilitaries and told me he is “closely acquainted” with loyalist paramilitary leaders and works with them on “various issues.” (Mr. Bryson denies any sort of membership in illegal organizations.)

Figures like Mr. Bryson have been bringing back — some might say co-opting — the language that was for centuries the cry of Ireland’s Catholics. He frequently describes the imposition of European trade standards as a colonial oppression and bemoans the “subjugation” of the unionist community. Invoking more recent history, Mr. Bryson and other unionists argue that Northern Ireland’s police, historically an arm of British and Protestant power, are now hostile to unionists and unduly influenced by nationalist politicians.

Like many unionists, Mr. Bryson won’t use the term “Good Friday Agreement,” preferring to call it the “Belfast Agreement” because, he says, he doesn’t like to associate a Christian holy day with such a disastrous document. The agreement, he told me, is like a train with only one destination: a united Ireland.

That’s not precisely true. The agreement simply handed self-determination to the people of Northern Ireland. What Mr. Bryson is protesting, in other words, is the failure of a fair process to dependably produce the results he wants. The same could be said of the trade protocols resulting from Brexit, which come with democratic backstops. The Northern Ireland Assembly will vote, every four or eight years, on whether to keep the protocols in place, and one-third of Northern Ireland lawmakers, so long as they represent at least two parties, will be able to formally object to E.U. regulations, sending Britain and the European Union into arbitration to resolve the complaint. Once again, Northern Ireland will get what a majority want.

Still, Mr. Bryson keeps describing his train: There’s no door for escape.

“You can either stay on the train, knowing you’re going off the cliff, or you can pull the emergency brake now, and you might get hurt,” he said. “But you were going to be dead anyway. At least you had a go.”

Underneath this train metaphor, I thought I detected a threat. I asked Mr. Bryson if he anticipated instability.

“Of course you’re going to have instability,” he shot back. “Do they think unionists are going to have our rights and our identity subjugated, and we’re not going to fight back politically?”

That last word landed, I thought, like a last-minute addition.

“Of course there’s a higher chance of armed conflict,” Mr. Bryson continued. “But que será, será. We’re not accepting it, come what may.”

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