BELFAST — Each year, at midnight on July 11, the Belfast skyline lights up with dozens of bonfires. Scattered across the Northern Irish capital, they are a reminder of a deep-rooted conflict that has in recent years lain largely dormant but which some fear could reignite in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union.
This year, the pyres, erected to commemorate the arrival of the protestant King William of Orange in 1690, had a novel touch. Alongside the green, white and gold of the Irish tricolor and effigies of the Pope were signs saying “Brexit.” On one blaze, a European flag was burning brightly.
There may be no other place in the U.K. where the decision to leave the EU has more dangerous implications than in Northern Ireland. The vote has deepened divisions and raised the specter that the militarized border that once cut through the island could one day be erected again.
Most Irish nationalists and liberal pro-U.K. unionists supported continuing EU membership. But there is little love for Europe among more hardline protestants.
“Brexit all of a sudden puts you in a box,” said Jonny Byrne, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “It identifies you very much as one or the other. That is damaging, especially in a society in 2016 that is trying to embrace diversity and difference. It is like taking a step back to the 1940s.”
On July 12, the high point of the protestant marching season, thousands ofOrangemen in mandarin-colored sashes, bowler hats and umbrellas gathered to parade through Belfast.
In past years, the “Glorious Twelfth” has often been accompanied by violence, especially near Belfast’s corrugated iron “peacewalls” that separate nationalists and unionists. In 2013, several days of rioting took place after the Northern Irish Parades Commission ruled that local Orange lodges could not march past a row of shops in the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood in north Belfast.
Since then a small protest camp has held a permanent vigil in nearby Twaddell Avenue, which is predominantly protestant. Twaddell has frequently been a flash point for unrest, particularly around the marching season. “This area lives in a siege mentality,” said Alfie McCrory, vice-chair of the Twaddell residents’ association.
As the marchers prepared to set out, dozens of protesters lined the route of the Orange parade. Some republicans opposed to the peace process gesticulated at the rows of heavily armed police. Others demonstrated silently as the Orange band passed by, playing a single drum beat as stipulated by the police.
Among the demonstrators was Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. The former Irish Republican Army prisoner was confident a solution could eventually be reached to end the Twaddell impasse — but less hopeful for the prospects of a compromise on Brexit.
Kelly’s party has called for a “border poll” on Irish unification in the wake of Brexit. “The vote has been taken, but the democratic decision was taken in the north to remain,” he said.
Signs of hope
The Democratic Unionist party, once Sinn Féin’s sworn enemy, is now its coalition partner in the devolved Assembly, and it is strongly in favor of Brexit. First Minister Arlene Foster has said Northern Ireland must follow the rest of the U.K. in leaving the EU.
But Foster’s is an unpopular position among many inside and outside the Assembly. Some two-thirds of its members advocated a remain vote, and concerns are growing rapidly about political — and economic — ramifications of leaving the EU.
Any decline in living standards is likely to be keenest felt in places like north Belfast, one of the country’s most deprived areas. Unemployment remains stubbornly above the national average. Even the landscape is still scarred by the Troubles. In this patchwork of terraced streets, the painted curbstones often change from loyalist blue to republican green in a matter of meters.
There are signs of hope, however. A £20 million community hub recently opened on the site of a former army barracks — with funding from the EU. “It is one of the rare spaces in north Belfast where people of all denominations can come together,” said Nicola Mallon, an Assembly representative for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.
As we spoke, the Orange parade silently disappeared into the distance, on its way to join thousands of marchers and bandsmen in Belfast city center.
“For British and Irish citizens here, the fact that you are part of a wider European society helps to shape a wider sense of citizenship,” said Winston Irvine, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Even though he is a loyalist, he voted to remain. “Now that you have removed the EU, it starts to bring domestic differences into sharper focus, which can’t be good for a society coming out of conflict.”
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement explicitly includes a role, albeit minor, for the European Union. The EU also provided human rights legislation and a supranational underpinning that has allowed Northern Ireland slowly to begin to move beyond the Manichean division between Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist. Now that is under threat.
Northern Ireland’s fate lies in the hands of politicians hundreds of miles away with limited knowledge of, or interest in, the region’s affairs. The region is low on the list of priorities for Theresa May. During the Brexit campaign the recently anointed prime minister said it was “inconceivable” that the Irish border could remain untouched. Her new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has dampened expectations of a bespoke deal for the region.
Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory.
“The reality of Brexit is people in London making decisions about us who have no real understanding of the issues in Northern Ireland and the uniqueness of the border and the issues around sovereignty,” said Jonny Byrne, the Ulster academic. “That is the antithesis of devolution.”
In Belfast city center, the Twelfth of July parade passed without incident. That evening, more republican protesters gathered outside the Ardoyne shops. A larger police presence separated them from a group of loyalists near the entrance to Twaddell Avenue. But for the first time in years, there was no violence as the marchers attempted to return. Instead, a single Orangeman handed a letter of complaint to the police.
Talks to resolve the Twaddell standoff are expected to restart soon, and hopes for a breakthrough are high. Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory. And yet, behind the newfound calm, there are growing fears that events far beyond Belfast’s streets could have serious repercussions for Northern Ireland’s still fragile peace.
This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.