A border between Eire and Northern Ireland based on the still uncertain prospects of Brexit would not only split apart a population that has only in recent years begun struggling to heal the wounds of a fratricidal war, but would also put in grave danger the difficult process of reconciliation. Msgr. Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and President of the Conference of Irish Bishops, launched an appeal to moderation. No person is better qualified than the Archbishop to comment on the thorniest question of Brexit, Ireland. His archdiocese lies across the border, but his is no exception: only two Northern Ireland dioceses lie entirely within Northern Ireland; the other four are located partly in Ireland and partly in the United Kingdom. People living along this border territory are used to life between two countries, with two currencies, two administrative districts, two revenue agencies. “My parishioners travel every day from one side of the border to the other to shop and to buy petrol, according to where they can find the best deals”, says the Archbishop, with a smile. There are workers and students who live on one side of the border but go to work or school on the other side. “What makes all this possible is freedom of movement”.
Msgr Martin, what role has the European Union played in this freedom of movement to date?
The fact that both countries are part of the EU has so far provided us with a ‘clear canvas’ on which to build our lives. As great statesmen such as John Hume have pointed out, it has given both nationalist Catholics and Republicans a vision whereby everyone could share a common future, in a context in which Unionists and Loyalists could feel like brothers and sisters, members of a common Europe despite cultural differences and different roots. And more importantly, this sense of belonging has allowed the development of the peace process.
What will happen with Brexit?
We don’t know what will happen but the feeling is not good, that is for sure. We are only a few weeks away from the deadline and there is still a lot of uncertainty.
What worries you the most?
There are no large companies in Northern Ireland. Most people work in small and medium sized businesses, and many work in the agriculture and food and livestock sectors. Therefore, freedom of movement is essential for them. Imagine a small businessman who has no idea what will happen in a few weeks’ time. The hypothesis taking shape based on the current British position, to plan for some form of customs control (though currently there is no infrastructure present on the border) is what worries people the most. If the whole of the UK is no longer part of the EU customs system, there will also be some form of customs control in place, and consequently customs duties, as well as a military and police presence, and security measures.
What happened in recent years?
Over the last few years, as the debate on Brexit went on, I have seen an increasing split into various factions. People have tended to take extreme positions on both sides, looking at each other with suspicion and distrust, and assuming tough and very rigid positions. Since last summer I have noticed a growing sectarianism and recourse to ‘hate speech’ and, unfortunately, also a growing use of violence.
I am thinking of the murder of the young journalist Lyra McKee, as well as numerous attacks on places of worship close to the border.
Msgr. Martin – faced with this situation, what would you ask for?
We need everyone – political leaders, civic society, and religious authorities – to take on their responsibilities and make an appeal to calm and moderation, including in the use of words, while at the same time giving an example of friendship and mutual collaboration, so that this most fragile peace process does not break down. This is what we are doing within the churches: we are working and witnessing together harmony and reconciliation. For example we recently called upon leaders on both sides of the political spectrum to make a commitment to peace.
What local policy responses have you received?
Another fear we have is the absence of an Assembly, which has eroded confidence in parliamentary democracy. Added to this are the scenes of aggression that we saw in Westminster, with people screaming at each other with anger. This is exactly the opposite of the model of politics that we try to encourage – a model based on moderation, care for each other, and the use of words.
Do you want make an appeal to Boris Johnson and the European Union?
I would ask them to support vigorously the principles expressed in the Good Friday Agreement, based on trust and the legitimate aspirations of each side. One of the principles expressed in the Good Friday Agreement, which is a determining factor in its success, is that it allows for differences in terms of legitimate aspirations. Today, supporting the principles expressed in the Good Friday Agreement means contributing to a better future for everyone living on the island of Ireland.