A walk through the wounds of Northern Ireland in the face of the challenge of Brexit | International

Rate this post

Peader Whelan ventures a few steps to the other side of the “peace line”, the concrete and wire wall that still separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of West Belfast today. Take the opportunity to say goodbye to the handful of tourists who have walked with him and listened to his explanations for almost two hours. He leaves them in the hands of Mark (he is reluctant to give his last name).

Peader belonged to the IRA. Arrested in 1977, he served 16 years in jail for possession of explosives and attempted murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary (formerly Northern Ireland Constabulary) officer. Mark served in the British Army for 35 years. Many of them, during the calls The Troubles (that euphemism that could be translated as problems or riots, and which refers to decades of sectarian violence, armed conflict and thousands of deaths). He saw several friends and family die.

The two collaborate in an activity that has supporters and detractors: Conflicting Stories. A Political Walk Through Belfast. A three-hour walk along Falls Road, the cradle of republicanism in favor of the unification of Ireland, or along the Shankill Road, a stronghold of unionism, the Protestant population in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom. Definitely, alternative tourism, but one that makes all the sense in the world in a city that still has miles of open wounds. At least in one part. There are other areas, in the center or on the docks, converted into a focus for technology companies, where you want to put the past to rest. But in some places, as William Faulkner wrote, "the past never dies, it is not even past."

Two express members of the IRA, last Thursday at the foot of the murals they have painted on Falls Road (Belfast).Rafael De Miguel

The Irish Protocol, that attempt to fit Northern Ireland into the post-Brexit era, has once again removed that past. "What the IRA did not achieve during decades of confrontation, the British Government will achieve with its pact with the EU: imposing a border in the Irish Sea that definitively separates this territory from the United Kingdom," laments Mark over and over again. . He tries to explain to the group of tourists how Northern Ireland "is at a decisive and very delicate moment, in which we will have to choose between protocol or peace."

Mark, the unionist tour guide in Belfast, in front of a mural in the Protestant neighborhood
Mark, the unionist tour guide in Belfast, in front of a mural in the Protestant neighborhoodRafael De Miguel

Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.


British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new deal with the EU earlier this week. He presented it jointly with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The Windsor Framework Agreement, they baptized the agreement. A way of beginning to erase the word “protocol” from the public imagination, which keeps the spirit of the most radical Northern Irish Protestant community on fire. They consider the idea that Northern Ireland remains within the internal market of the EU to be a betrayal, the solution designed between London and Brussels so as not to re-impose a border that would split the island in two and revive the tensions silenced in the peace agreement in Good Friday (1998).

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the most voted among the Protestant population —but not the only one—, has been blocking the formation of an autonomous Parliament and Government for a year. Until now, he has demanded the disappearance or radical reform of the protocol. Their response to the new pact reached by Sunak, which they have not yet officially expressed, will be essential to unravel the situation. But the leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, does not stop looking askance at more extremist formations, such as the Traditional Unionist Voice, a recent splinter, or the unionist paramilitary forces.

"Despite all the boasts and threats, there is not the slightest appetite, even among the unionist community, to return to a new period of violence," defends Peader in front of the wall that commemorates Bobby Sands, the historic deceased IRA leader in prison at the end of a long hunger strike, in 1981. “The loyal forces [loyalists, como se conoce a las formaciones paramilitares que siguen presentes] they have largely degenerated into criminality and drug trafficking. They no longer have support from their own community, ”he accuses.

IRA Express Peader Whelan on Falls Road, Belfast last Friday.
IRA Express Peader Whelan on Falls Road, Belfast last Friday.Rafael De Miguel

Northern Ireland has 1.9 million inhabitants. More than 800,000 are of the Protestant tradition. The last census, in 2021, registered a historic turnaround. For the first time, the number of Catholics was greater. In the regional elections of May 2022, there was another even more powerful turnaround: Sinn Féin, the party considered for decades the political arm of the terrorist organization IRA, obtained the first position.

“How are these people going to rule! Half of the Sinn Féin deputies belonged to the IRA, and they have blood on their hands. It's not democratic”, Mark laments in front of the place where Frizzell's fishmonger was one day. A bomb killed 10 people, including one of the IRA members and two children inside.

Peader and Mark keep alive a past that crushes the future of Belfast like a stone.

whiskey and technology

There is another part of Belfast, as there is another part of Northern Ireland, that refuses to look back. “One day I consider myself more Northern Irish, another day just Irish and another day simply British. I actually have my Irish passport, I haven't gotten my British one yet," says Wally McBride. He's 45 years old. He works as a technology consultant at Citibank, a global bank with thousands of branches around the world. The financial institution opted to occupy several of the buildings in The Catalyst, a real estate and industrial complex on the city's docks, which today concentrates several technology companies where a decade ago everything was ruin. "Honestly, what I want is for this mess to end once and for all, and for us to have our own government institutions again," he explains. “I grew up on a farm, near the border. My grandfather fought in World War I, when Ireland was just one, in the British Empire. My father voted for Brexit. He now he regrets it. European aid to livestock no longer arrives”. He smiles at the irony. “I think I belong to the group of Irish who want to move forward,” he sums up.

Nearby is the historic building of The Pump House. It preserves the motors and water pumps that emptied and filled the dam where the titanic received the final touches before embarking on his fateful journey.

Today, Damien Rafferty, 36, and a team of workers under his command finish fitting out the Titanic Distillery, which will open its facilities on March 31. Single malt or blended Irish whiskey in American oak barrels that previously contained liters of bourbon for years. “I like to think that we condense the past and the future of Northern Ireland,” says Rafferty as he proudly shows off the old motors and new stills, handcrafted in Scotland. "This is the end of titanicand here will be the first Northern Irish distillery in many decades”, he boasts.

Damien Rafferty, owner of the Titanic Distillery located on the Belfast docks, last Friday in front of his new stills.
Damien Rafferty, owner of the Titanic Distillery located on the Belfast docks, last Friday in front of his new stills.Rafael De Miguel

It will buy the malt from farmers in the south, in the Republic of Ireland, on the other side of that border that today, to the relief of many inhabitants of the island, is invisible. "I lived the end of The Troubles, and I still remember how scary it was to go through some parts of Belfast. The Irish Protocol, or better yet the agreement reached by Sunak, means having the best of both worlds, and selling our whiskey in the UK and the EU Internal Market. I prefer a border in the water, in the Irish Sea, which is not seen and is a metaphor, to recovering the real border”, says Damien.

Interestingly, he reveals, the MP for the constituency where he votes is Jeffrey Donalds, the leader of the DUP. "I don't know him personally, but I can tell you that he does not represent me," he ironically.

Next April 10 will be the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, which put an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts that survived in Europe. And it is still not clear if the problem of the protocol signed with the EU will have been solved. If there will be a propitious atmosphere to celebrate it with a good Irish whiskey —for many connoisseurs, far superior to Scotch—, or if the past will continue to weigh like lead.

Follow all the international information on Facebook and Twitteror in our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe to continue reading

Read without limits

Author Profile

Nathan Rivera
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Nathan Rivera, a dedicated journalist who has had the privilege of writing for the online newspaper Today90. My journey in the world of journalism has been a testament to the power of dedication, integrity, and passion.

My story began with a relentless thirst for knowledge and an innate curiosity about the events shaping our world. I graduated with honors in Investigative Journalism from a renowned university, laying the foundation for what would become a fulfilling career in the field.

What sets me apart is my unwavering commitment to uncovering the truth. I refuse to settle for superficial answers or preconceived narratives. Instead, I constantly challenge the status quo, delving deep into complex issues to reveal the reality beneath the surface. My dedication to investigative journalism has uncovered numerous scandals and shed light on issues others might prefer to ignore.

I am also a staunch advocate for press freedom. I have tirelessly fought to protect the rights of journalists and have faced significant challenges in my quest to inform the public truthfully and without constraints. My courage in defending these principles serves as an example to all who believe in the power of journalism to change the world.

Throughout my career, I have been honored with numerous awards and recognitions for my outstanding work in journalism. My investigations have changed policies, exposed corruption, and given a voice to those who had none. My commitment to truth and justice makes me a beacon of hope in a world where misinformation often prevails.

At Today90, I continue to be a driving force behind journalistic excellence. My tireless dedication to fair and accurate reporting is an invaluable asset to the editorial team. My biography is a living testament to the importance of journalism in our society and a reminder that a dedicated journalist can make a difference in the world.