This Is the Front Line of Britain’s Brexit Pushby
Derry in Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the EU
Locals brace for financial hit as Ryanair pulls London route
It’s a place synonymous with conflict and is now on the front line of Britain’s divisive push to leave the European Union.
Whether you call it Derry or Londonderry, the cradle of the “Troubles” that haunted the U.K. province of Northern Ireland for three decades has been scarred by a history of sieges and bombings. Inside the walled city, the latest battle for locals is financial after the U.K. voted for Brexit against their wishes. Its airport is losing flights, there are questions about cross-border trade and EU subsidies may be about to end.
“I don’t believe U.K. money will replace EU money,” said John Kelly, whose younger brother was killed in Derry on “Bloody Sunday” in 1972 when British troops shot dead 13 unarmed civilians. He now helps run a museum dedicated to their memory and its new building is being partly paid for by the EU. “In years to come, people will see the money disappear. We are talking millions upon millions.”
The British government is planning to start negotiations over its departure from the bloc next year. Supporters of Brexit say there may be short-term pain, but there will be longer-term benefits from trade agreements around the world and not having to pay into the EU budget.
It doesn’t feel that way at the moment in Derry on the U.K.’s western extremity. The city is closely bound to the EU, with about 78 percent of voters backing “remain” in the June 23 referendum when nationally “leave” won 52-48 percent. It’s also right on the border with Ireland, whose largest trading partners are Britain and the U.S.
Brexit is already taking a toll in a place that was the U.K.’s City of Culture in 2013. Discount airline Ryanair Holdings Plc, a transportation lifeline for many smaller cities around Europe, will fully scrap its Derry-London flight in March and is phasing out its route to Portugal and scaling back other services after the pound tumbled.
“Ryanair’s decisions are a direct casualty of Brexit,” said Clive Coleman, contracts director at the company that runs the airport. “It just didn’t add up for them because of the devaluation of sterling.”
While the government agreed to subsidize the London route and the search is on for another operator, it’s a reminder of how far Northern Ireland had come and what’s now at risk. The Brexit vote caused a schism like it did in the rest of the U.K., but here it laid bare the lingering sectarian divide. The largest of the pro-U.K., traditionally Protestant parties backed Brexit while the Irish republicans of Sinn Fein opposed it.
One thing they all agree on is that transit between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should remain unencumbered, something supported by the U.K. government. Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers in London on Tuesday that “we don’t want to see a return to the borders of the past” and British and Irish authorities are working on a solution.
The border runs from Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south, and for decades, British soldiers patrolled the crossing as the violence that began in the city in the late 1960s spiraled into a 30-year conflict that claimed 3,500 lives. The province still gets EU subsidies tied to a 1998 peace agreement.
Locals, meanwhile, don’t even agree on the name: Catholics call it Derry, Protestants Londonderry. Now 43, Lily McGonagle remembers crossing into the north as a child living in Donegal in the south. Her parents told her to say she was going “to the city.”
“If you said Derry or Londonderry, that gave away where you were from,” she said. “The idea that they could reintroduce the border just seems ridiculous.”
Earlier this month, she drove her three children to Derry to visit Santa Claus without a second thought. After the border melted away, she worked in the largely pro-U.K. Waterside area, and her husband is now studying part-time in the city.
“It’s our natural hinterland,” McGonagle said in a cafe in Derry’s Foyleside shopping mall. “We go out there, we shop there, we go to wakes in Derry. I even think in sterling.”
A short stroll away is the Bogside, where the region’s civil rights movement took root in the late 1960s. Murals of victims of the conflict adorn the area, dominated by a vast gable wall telling visitors “You are now entering Free Derry.’’
All over the city, European money is apparent. The EU mostly paid for a pedestrian bridge linking Waterside to the rest of the city. Two weeks before June’s referendum, former U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major walked across it together as part of the doomed “Remain” campaign.
Close by, builders were erecting new premises for the Museum of Free Derry dedicated to Bloody Sunday. The EU is providing 300,000 pounds ($371,000) of the 2.4 million-pound construction cost, said Kelly.
Retailers like Ursula McGivern, who helps run a craft collective, said the pound’s 9 percent decline against the euro since the Brexit vote is drawing visitors north, but that doesn’t stop her worrying.
“A number of people who were thinking of opening businesses have paused,” said McGivern. “I was 16 when the Troubles started, and I wouldn’t like my grandchildren to live through it.”