DERRY, Northern Ireland — From the 400-year-old walls of Derry, famous for blocking the siege of King James II and his Catholics in 1689, you can easily look out across the River Foyle to see the hills of County Donegal beyond the Irish border. In this city where history is a living battle, the border is once again at the center of the ancient Irish question.
“It’s not the Irish border, it’s the British border,” shouts Paul Doherty, a local tour guide who specializes in “The Troubles” of Derry’s recent history. “They put it there.”
It’s not even a border anymore, a local cabdriver offers. Though it may become one again if those idiots in London have their way, he says.
Almost a century after the British offered Ireland a deal — its freedom for the partition of Northern Ireland — the European Union is essentially offering the British the same thing to achieve Brexit. The deal for the United Kingdom to leave Europe has come down embarrassingly and almost entirely to what happens to this 310-mile stretch of land.
As new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson digs in against the idea of ensuring an open border after Brexit in what is known as the Irish “backstop,” the ensuing panic in Ireland is leading some to an idea unthinkable a generation ago: The best way to preserve the open border would be to finally unite the island.
A turbulent history
While a lot of that talk is led by pro-unification political parties such as Sinn Fein, even Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar admitted in a recent speech that “if Britain takes Northern Ireland out of the EU against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland … those questions will arise, whether we like it or not.”
The border itself has changed dramatically since the turbulent days of the 1970s and 1980s, when the British army reduced its more than 200 crossings to just 20 imposing checkpoints with turrets and watchtowers, barbed wire and spiked roads. As a young foreign correspondent covering the 1994 peace talks for Bloomberg News, I remember the menacing atmosphere of “Bandit Country” near Crossmaglen in County Armagh, and Enniskillen, where if your car got stopped you weren’t sure by which side.
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Returning 25 years later and more than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement of 1998 opened up the border between north and south, it is refreshing to see the border simply marked by changes in road signs. Some 6,000 trucks, or lorries, cross each day, according to the BBC, bringing goods between the North and what many still call the Free State. More than 30,000 people cross each day for their jobs, the news service said.
Though for all the progress, little of the historic tension has dissipated. At least in Derry. The Catholic Bogside neighborhood outside and below the city walls remains poor, and it’s marked with murals of revolutionary activity and Irish martyrs on building walls. Doherty the tour guide, whose father was one of 13 killed by British paratroopers on “Bloody Sunday” in 1972, leads a dozen tourists on a grim path of history through that horrible day.
He stops to point out where his dad was shot “in the back.” And brings the group to the memorial with the names of his dad and the others killed. Many were just teenagers eager to march with the civil rights protest that day for the excitement, he said. Across the street is the famous wall where “You are now entering Free Derry” has stood for decades.
Up on the walls later, a British flag can be viewed from another part of town, near a mural supporting loyalists and their slogan “No Surrender.” The walls are only open to walk on during the daytime, and there is still a fence on part of one side facing the Bogside, to protect against projectiles.
The tension created by these divisions simmers to this day, made worse by the killing of young journalist Lyra McKee in April during a riot. As Johnson ratchets up the talk of a hard Brexit and possible return to direct rule in Northern Ireland, concerns on both sides of the border are soaring.
Uniting Ireland may be in the cards
The stated purpose of the backstop is to ensure free trade and movement across what would become an EU border after Brexit. But its real purpose is to protect the fragile peace of the Belfast Agreement. A hard Brexit would be an economic calamity for both sides in Ireland, but losing the peace would be worse. More than 3,000 people were killed in the Troubles, and in the closely packed communities of the Republic and the North, their relatives still live with it.
The potential flashpoints are everywhere. Talk of uniting the island to bring the Northern Irish back into Europe will also be viewed as dangerous spin, with threats of return to violence a real possibility. Many on both sides would resist.
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Brexit by any stretch is going to be a milestone in Europe’s postwar experiment of unifying its economies. It could foretell the end of the euro currency if other countries, say Italy, decide to leave. Or it could simply just further distance Britain from the days of its once great empire. In Ireland, the stakes are higher and more immediate. Not just jobs but lives could depend on what happens in the next few months.
As the 100th anniversary of the Irish Republic approaches in two years, and the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday the year after that, the future of Ireland is again at stake. A poker chip in the hands of a British prime minister who has grander visions for himself and his role in Brexit, that future must be grabbed by Irish leaders on both sides of the border.
It would be one of the great ironies of European history if the U.K. departure from the EU actually led to the final chapter in its 800-year occupation of Ireland. It is in the furnace of ancient passions like the ones we now witness that such history is forged.
David Callaway is vice president of the World Editors Forum and former editor in chief of USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @dcallaway
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In response to Brexit, Ireland should unite