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What Brexit Means For Northern Ireland

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brexit is at hand following an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons yesterday for Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to remove Britain from the European Union on January 31. The prime minister's plan resolves the question of what to do with Britain's Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. He wants Northern Ireland to effectively remain in the EU to avoid a hard border for trade, including customs restrictions, while at the same time remaining in the U.K.

Ben Lowry is the deputy editor of the News Letter, a unionist paper based in Belfast. Mr. Lowry, thanks for being with us.

BEN LOWRY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Is there concern that Brexit, despite what the prime minister wants, could undo the relative ease at the Irish border?

LOWRY: What has happened is that it now seems, in order to avoid any disruption or change whatsoever at the Irish land border, even a conservative and unionist government led by Boris Johnson is going to move as much of the border to the Irish Sea.

SIMON: What happens by effectively moving the border there?

LOWRY: So until now, Northern Ireland has been an integral part of the U.K. in which there is no constraint on movement of people, no passport checks and no constraints - almost no constraints, for health reasons, on movements of goods. What is now going to happen is that Northern Ireland will be closer in economic terms to the European Union and that there will be major checks between movements of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and some possible tariffs, certainly a lot of paperwork. And the unionist argument is that no country on Earth would tolerate this for internal movement. But Boris Johnson has agreed to this. But there still will not be passport checks.

SIMON: Will there be economic consequences because of what sounds like increased bureaucracy?

LOWRY: There are two arguments in that. One argument is that the biggest trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. is with Great Britain and that it is disastrous to have burdens on that trade. The other argument is that Northern Ireland having a foot in both camps will get the best of both worlds and potentially become a Hong Kong. Nobody knows, and even economists disagree on what the implications of it will be.

So it will be a psychological change. And the question then is, how much will the people in both communities feel that Brexit has changed things, nationalists feeling that even though the land border is easy, that they've been turfed out of the European Union, and unionists thinking something intolerable has happened, which is a barrier between here and the rest of the U.K.

SIMON: Will this renew calls for Irish unity?

LOWRY: It has certainly brought alive what is called the constitutional question - whether or not we stay in the U.K. - which 10 years ago seemed to be settled. There's no question that that issue is alive in a way that it wasn't. It's not clear what the actual polling will be. But it is a tense time, in part because this issue that seemed to be settled is now very much up in the air.

SIMON: But as you describe it, there is not a concern about an increase in tensions or public action.

LOWRY: There was a concern that if the Irish land border became harder and more clearly defined and there were checks that there would be disorder from Irish Republicans who want Irish unity. There is a concern - and the police are acting on the concern - that loyalists, unionists who want to stay in the United Kingdom, will get involved in protests at the ports to say that this is an unacceptable betrayal and there should be no such movement.

The number of unionists who would support that kind of violence is small. And the number of dissident Republicans who would've supported violence at the land border is small. But small numbers of people can do significant amounts of damage.

SIMON: Ben Lowry is deputy editor of the News Letter in Belfast. We reached him via Skype. Thanks so much for being with us.

LOWRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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