How a life snuffed out put Brexit in perspective
The shooting dead of the young journalist Lyra McKee during a riot in the city of Londonderry was not only a tragedy in itself, but it also illustrated how fragile is peace in Northern Ireland.
Two decades ago the Good Friday agreement ended decades of sectarian strife. Since then the island of Ireland has become more integrated, both economically and between people. The UK is Ireland’s third-largest export market. Agricultural products in particular go back and forth across the border unhindered. People, too, criss-cross the frontier with ease and regularity. There are no checkpoints. For all practical purposes there is no border between the Irish Republic, an enthusiastic member of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, part of the UK — which wants to leave the EU.
This is why the proposal, in the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, of a “Northern Ireland backstop” gained such prominence in the Brexit debate. For Ireland and for the EU it is vital that the border remain open; it is of critical importance to the Irish economy, and agriculture in particular. Under the withdrawal agreement, therefore, if the UK and the EU were unable to reach a trade agreement, the backstop would kick in — leaving Northern Ireland in the European customs union and able to trade with the Republic on the same basis as before. It is only a fail-safe mechanism, but tempers flared nevertheless.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 Northern Ireland members of parliament prop up Theresa May’s minority government, were particularly incensed. As their name suggests, their raison d’etre is that Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom. They fear that the backstop would effectively create not only a united island of Ireland (political anathema to them), but also a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.
What happened on Thursday night cannot be compared to the sectarian strife of decades past. If anything, it has united political adversaries in rejection of the perpetrators.
Prominent Conservatives agree with that view. Support goes beyond Jacob Rees-Mogg and his “uber Brexiteer” European Research Group. A leading critic of the backstop is David Trimble, who now sits for the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, but is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland; Lord Trimble won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his key role in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement.
The backstop issue is emotional on all sides, as Irish matters often are. The riots in Londonderry — or Derry, as it is known to the nationalist community — and the murder of Lyra McKee evoked grim flashbacks in all those who lived through the Troubles. Northern Ireland was a dark and dangerous place then. It has become much more optimistic, even if local politicians cannot currently reach the compromise necessary to form a government in Stormont.
What happened on Thursday night cannot be compared to the sectarian strife of decades past. If anything, it has united political adversaries in rejection of the perpetrators. Unsurprisingly, they were condemned in the strongest terms by Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the republican Sinn Fein party. Remarkably, however, the DUP leader Arlene Foster took part in a vigil for the victim in Creggan, the fiercely republican area where the murder happened, and a place where she has never set foot in her life.
Most people in the UK and in Europe are tired of the endless turns and twists of the Brexit debate, but Thursday’s events highlighted that there may be more at stake than jobs and the economy. For the people of Northern Ireland it may become a question of peace itself. This incident alone is not a sign of increasing tension. However, violence tends to fuel acrimonious debate, which can breed more violence if it goes unchecked. If we have learned one thing, it is that we must preserve peace — whatever it takes.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.