The prospect of Britain quitting the European Union has raised concerns of a return to sectarian violence in British-ruled Northern Ireland.

Brexit,Northern Ireland

A mother and two daughters in a Catholic neighborhood of Belfast the day after the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The prospect of Britain quitting the European Union has raised concerns across Europe that this could spark a return to sectarian violence in British-ruled Northern Ireland.

Britain is due to vote in a referendum on June 23 on whether to leave the 28-member EU, which includes the Irish Republic. The outcome is far from clear.

Many senior political figures are worried that a British exit, or Brexit, could undermine the 1998 landmark Good Friday agreement that created an assembly in Northern Ireland with power shared between the pro-British Protestant majority and pro-Irish Catholic minority, long at loggerheads.

There has even been a suggestion that a Brexit could lead to a new poll on whether the North should be reunited with the Irish Republic.

What is Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland is a province covering about one sixth of the island of Ireland that remained part of the United Kingdom when the rest of the island became independent in 1921.

It includes six of the nine counties of the old kingdom of Ulster and is sometimes also known by that name.

The inhabitants of Northern Ireland are predominantly Protestant — descendants of settlers from the British mainland — while the population of the Republic of Ireland to the south is mostly Roman Catholic.

The religious divide helped fuel conflicts with the United Kingdom and within Ireland itself in the periods before and immediately after Irish independence and in the second half of the 20th century.

The violence that began in the late 1960s and killed more than 3,250 people ended with the so-called Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. Backed by the European Union and signed by the UK and Irish governments, it recognized the political aspirations of the rival communities in Northern Ireland. (more)

The Good Friday agreement, which was brokered by London and Dublin under the auspices of the EU, ended 30 years of sectarian violence that killed more than 3,000 people as Irish Republican guerrillas sought to reunify Ireland, divided in 1921 when the Republic gained its independence while the North stayed British.

Many, including Irish premier Enda Kenny, fear that the 1998 agreement, which also set up cross-border institutions to help the two sides work together, is valid only as long as all parties belong to the EU.

The EU has provided 1.3 billion euros in “peace money.”

Some political leaders across Europe fear that a Brexit could lead to a return to “hard” borders between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the south, which were a flash-point for violence during what are known as “the troubles.”

Lord Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary and EU Trade Commissioner, said: “Anything in my view that strengthens a sense of separation between Northern and Southern Ireland — physically, economically, psychologically — has the potential to upset the progress that has been made and serves as a potential source of renewed sectarianism that would always bear the risk of issuing forth violence in Ireland, particularly in the North.”

Many senior figures supporting Brexit, including current Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, have dismissed fears of borders clamping shut. They also reject the argument that the Good Friday agreement is wholly dependent on EU membership.

Those arguing against Brexit, however, point out that it is EU membership by both Britain and Ireland that has blunted the thorny issue of sovereignty that has kept Northern Ireland’s two communities at war. EU membership also encouraged Dublin to give up its historic claim to the North, which paved the way for the Good Friday agreement.

They also note that Northern Ireland has been generously funded by the EU, with 1.3 billion euros of “peace money” coming since 1989 in a flow due to last until 2020.

An interesting twist to the whole story has been provided by Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of the Northern Ireland assembly and a leading member of the Irish Nationalist Sinn Fein party. He has called for a new poll on whether the province should leave the United Kingdom if Britain leaves the EU.

“A legitimate test of political opinion.”

“I have proposed to Theresa Villiers that, given the enormous significance of these issues, the British government now give a firm commitment to an immediate border poll in the event Britain votes to leave the European Union,” McGuinness said.

He added that a border poll would be a “legitimate test of political opinion that would threaten no one.”

The British government has said it believes a substantial majority of Northern Ireland want to remain part of Britain, and that a border poll would be “costly, divisive and a distraction.”

Before the Good Friday agreement, there used to be watch towers, armored cars and soldiers with machine guns at the border between the North and South. Now they are gone.

Just across the border in the south lies Dundalk, which during the troubles was known as the town for sale because so many were leaving. Now, since normal cross-border trade was restored, it is thriving.

Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.

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