'Brexit election' feeds Northern Ireland's bitter divide

Belfast (AFP) –


Britain's "Brexit election" may be hardening opinion about Northern Ireland's status, widening a gulf that characterised the province's bloody and still unsettled sectarian past.

Political parties across the country are campaigning before polling on December 12, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoping to secure a majority to get his divorce deal approved.

But nowhere is the split between those wanting to leave the European Union and opponents more acute than in Northern Ireland, whose electorate was divided years before.

Historically, Protestant unionists have favoured remaining with Britain, while Catholic republicans have preferred unity with Ireland.

That spilled over into violence lasting more than 30 years, during which more than 3,500 were killed by paramilitary bombs and bullets on both sides, and the security forces.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to "The Troubles", re-established a power-sharing devolved government in Belfast and an open border with Ireland to the south.

Johnson's slogan to "Get Brexit Done" is testing more than two decades of reconciliation and a delicate balance, in particular through electoral alliances along traditional lines.

"This election is... different from the previous Westminster election in Northern Ireland in that you've seen some parties forming what they call an 'anti-Brexit pact'," said Queen's University Belfast politics lecturer Elodie Fabre.

"Ultimately, this tends to reinforce those community divisions in some constituencies," she told AFP.

- Electoral pacts -

In North Belfast, for example, such deals have restricted unionist and republican voters to one option each after more moderate parties withdrew from the race to support their allies.

"Our first priority is to elect pro-Remain MPs to vote against Brexit & Boris Johnson but removing pro-Brexit MPs in Belfast is also critical," said the republican SDLP.

On the ballot will be the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, which both have a hardline position on the constitutional divide and historical ties with paramilitaries.

"The idea that there's been a whole nationalist alliance with Sinn Fein is very problematic for the unionists in that constituency," said Fabre.

"The extension of pacts in Northern Ireland... does stoke that sort of division and reinforces that 'us versus them' dimension of the election."

The result has been a bitter campaign with each side evoking atrocities committed during "The Troubles", and the squeezing out of more moderate voices.

- A call to unity -

At the 2016 EU referendum, Northern Ireland voted remain. The national result -- leave -- has stoked calls from Irish republicans for a poll on unification with Ireland.

"The days of partition are numbered, change is in the air, Brexit has changed everything," Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald told the party's annual conference recently.

"In the next five years, let the people have their say," she added, contrasting her republican party on a pro-EU platform to the DUP as "architects and champions of Brexit".

Her comments are sure to inflame the passions of unionists and more hardcore loyalists.

"For 20 years our community... has been conditioned to think that we must continually appease Irish nationalism," unionist activist Jamie Bryson told a heated hall meeting packed with sympathisers last week, according to The News Letter daily.

- Grassroots outreach -

So-called "peace walls" sprung up around Belfast during The Troubles. The towering concrete and metalwork structures were designed to prevent warring communities trading projectiles.

But since 1998 some have been torn down.

Research published this month showed a rise in local residents hoping the remaining barriers would be removed within the next generation.

It is a sign some may be ready to separate the troubles of the past with the politics of today.

"We're the children of the peace process," said Doire Finn, co-founder of the Northern Ireland branch of youth remain campaign Our Future Our Choice.

"A lot of the politicians that we see that are the older generation and obviously still hold to what happened in the past and you have to respect that.

"But I think we're now really all hopeful that there is a new generation of politicians coming that understand young people and value them."

Finn's group is encouraging followers to cast their vote tactically wherever it most increases the chance of returning a "remain" MP -- regardless of their stance on the union.

They have endorsed a total of six candidates across the spectrum but have still faced ire.

"We have been accused of being a pan-nationalist front," said co-founder Aron Hughes, who at 18 is preparing to vote in his first general election.

"It's playing into the old politics of what Northern Ireland is," he said.