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Why Many People In Northern Ireland Are Not Satisfied With Latest Brexit Proposal


The toughest knot to untangle in the negotiations over Brexit has been this - what to do about the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is staying in the European Union. An open or soft border has been a crucial component of the peace agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Ireland in 1998. The Brexit deal negotiated by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week proposes a solution to the border problem, but many people in Northern Ireland aren't satisfied. Parliament votes on the deal tomorrow.

Here to explain is Ben Lowry, deputy editor for the Belfast News Letter. It leans unionist, which means it favors a Northern Ireland politically united with the rest of the U.K. He joins us via Skype.

Welcome to the program.

BEN LOWRY: Hello. Thank you.

CORNISH: Let's begin by explaining the deal that Boris Johnson and the EU have negotiated. And what does this mean for Northern Ireland?

LOWRY: Essentially, it means that Northern Ireland will stay in the United Kingdom's customs territory, but there will be lots of checks for goods - for standards of goods and customs in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. And there'll be no checks on the Irish land border on the island of Ireland.

CORNISH: Can we talk about why this border is so contentious, to the point where it has affected the entire Brexit deal?

LOWRY: Essentially, nationalists - mostly Catholic background in Northern Ireland - think there must not be obstructions on the Irish land border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an independent nation state. And unionists feel that there must not be checks between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the rest of the U.K.

The unionist argument is no country on earth would have significant checks on internal movement. For the unionists, it's the same as being in Alaska. It would be unthinkable for there to be passport checks or for any checks on goods between Alaska and the 48 states.

CORNISH: Help us understand the sentiment going into this process. Was there support for Brexit among the Northern Irish?

LOWRY: No. There was a vote against Brexit in Northern Ireland. And again, you come to a fundamental division of outlook. The unionist argument is that Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. It's a U.K.-wide vote. The Irish nationalist argument is that if Northern Ireland voted that way on such a major issue, it cannot be wrenched out of the European Union and thereby divorced even more from the Irish Republic, which stays in the European Union.

CORNISH: Now here we are on the eve of yet another vote. I understand that the Democratic Unionist Party only has 10 votes in the 650-seat Parliament. So do they even have the power to stop this?

LOWRY: No, they don't. And so what you've seen is a big geopolitical shift, and Northern Ireland has held up this process for three years - a tiny fraction of Europe, less than 1% of the population. And Europe isn't going to allow it to hold it up anymore, and neither is London.

CORNISH: You used the term dragging. What's the mood about the whole Brexit process in Northern Ireland?

LOWRY: I think the mood is - there's always been bewilderment because of the complicated nature of it. In addition to that, there's great resentment and anger. In Northern Ireland, you have the same divisions over Brexit but overlaying pre-existing divisions that are centuries old.

I was beginning to think 10 years ago that the Northern Ireland situation had been largely solved - increasingly prosperous society, people not so hung up on identity. Then suddenly these divisions have erupted - not in violence, there's a small amount of violence still but politically. And there's all this bitterness at the moment.

CORNISH: Ben Lowry, deputy editor for the Belfast News Letter.

Thank you for explaining it.

LOWRY: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.