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Unionists in Northern Ireland Feel Betrayed by Brexit Deal

DERRY, Northern Ireland — As many across mainland Britain expressed guarded relief at the breakthrough in Brexit negotiations on Thursday, unionists in Northern Ireland felt a deep sense of betrayal after Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a deal with the European Union despite significant objections from the lawmakers who represent them.

The new deal, which still needs the approval of the British Parliament, ignores red lines set out by the influential Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P., rejecting a separate Brexit arrangement for Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom as it leaves the European Union.

Broadly speaking, unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland are in favor of remaining a part of the United Kingdom, while nationalists and republicans seek a united Ireland.

Under the draft agreement, Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the European Union’s single market to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland is a member of the European Union.) But customs checks would be put in place at ports and airports for items coming into the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.

“We have fought wars, thousands have died, to keep Northern Ireland secure in the union; and now, just like that, we are being pushed toward the republic with a sea border and a different set of rules,” said Ian Collins, a former loyalist activist. Mr. Collins’s brother was killed in a bombing during the Northern Ireland conflict, which ended in 1998 following the Good Friday peace agreement.

“How can you apply checks at airports when you are going from one part of the same country to another?” Mr. Collins asked. “It’s madness.”

Under the new agreement, Northern Ireland will also remain a part of Britain’s customs territory, allowing it to be included in future trade deals. However, the region will become an entry point for the European Union’s customs zone. To prevent checks on goods passing into the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland will have to apply European Union rules on tariffs.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland, and they undermine the integrity of the union,” the D.U.P. said in a statement on Thursday. “Our main route of trade on an East-West basis will be subject to rules of the European Union Customs Union, notwithstanding that Northern Ireland will remain part of the U.K. Customs territory.”

Many in Northern Ireland — whether they wish to remain in the union or unify with the Republic of Ireland — fear that the new deal will put the region at an economic disadvantage. The D.U.P. warned that consumers in Northern Ireland would face the prospect of increased costs and less choice because of the checks that are being implemented to facilitate trade.

“I believe in a united Ireland, and I know some people are excited by this idea of the union being broke up by Brexit, but this new deal feels like a lose-lose for all sides,” said Martin Doyle, 62, a retired tailor who lives in a republican district of the city of Derry. “If the economy suffers any more, we are all doomed, so it might be better, for now, to just stay as is. Stay in Europe.”

Several unionist politicians agreed.

“Everybody is not realizing there needs to be another solution to what is in effect Northern Ireland becoming a place that is very separate,” Steve Aiken, the chief whip of the Ulster Unionist Party, told the BBC in a television interview Thursday.

“One of the questions we need to ask is are we better off where we are now, rather than going down these alignments?” Mr. Aiken continued. “That seems to be the case.”

Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party, dismissed the new deal as “disastrous,” saying it would set back Northern Ireland’s economy as the rest of the United Kingdom moves on and “thrives” outside the European Union.

“The inescapable reality,” he added, “is that a permanent regulatory and customs border cutting us off from Great Britain puts us in a waiting room for Irish unity, with the door locked from the outside.”

Some nationalists and republicans have described Brexit as a “gift” that will naturally result in the collapse of the union and the unification of Ireland through a referendum.

“There are republican dissidents who would like to exploit the chaos of Brexit and use it as an excuse to take up an armed struggle, but at this rate unification will happen before it even gets to that point,” said Patrick Daly, a former mediator who worked to establish peace between loyalists and republicans.

Another contentious part of the new deal — one that unionists fear could undermine the Good Friday peace deal — is the issue of consent. The D.U.P. says consent from unionists and nationalists in the Northern Ireland assembly must precede any new arrangements. But the vote under the new deal will be a simple majority, and the D.U.P. will not have the opportunity to exercise a veto.

Residents of Northern Ireland also feel frustrated that they have not had a say in the Brexit process since the 2016 referendum, despite the focus in the negotiations on the region’s fragile peace.

“Everyone who lives hundreds of miles away from Northern Ireland says this is a great deal for us,” Mr. Daly said. “But no one asks us what we think, what we want. They make the decisions and ultimately give us the short straw.”

Dissident republican and loyalist groups, who pose a great threat to Northern Ireland’s peace agreement because they often resort to violence to achieve their aims, also rejected the new deal on Thursday.

“The Irish people have had no say in the Brexit process, it has been the competing imperialist powers of London and Brussels that have decided what happens in Ireland,” Saoradh, a political organization with links to the New I.R.A., a republican paramilitary group, said in a statement.

“Rest assured, whatever the outcome of Brexit, the socioeconomic objectives of the elites will remain the same,” the statement added, “and in Ireland that status quo means partition, poverty, homelessness, evictions, privatization of utilities, hollowing out of health care and the theft of our natural resources.”

Walking across the Foyle Bridge toward her house on the Protestant side of Derry, Lynsey Walsh said that what upsets her the most about every Brexit proposal is how they ignore the plurality of Irish identity.

“The great thing about living here is that you can be British, Irish, European all at the same time,” said Ms. Walsh, a chef. “Why are we now being forced to choose?”

Source: NYT > World News

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