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Talk Of A No-Deal Brexit Raises The Prospects Of A United Ireland


There is no doubt that Brexit has deeply divided Great Britain. Some say it's even threatening to tear it apart. In Scotland, independence is back on the agenda. And in Northern Ireland, with its violent history between Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists, the threat of a no-deal Brexit has fueled talk of the unthinkable - uniting with Ireland. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has more.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The retired Irish Republican Army guys in the Northern Ireland city of Derry hang out at a pub called The Bogside Inn. The evening I visit, they're drinking Guinness and singing this song.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Raindrops keep falling on my head...

KAKISSIS: Patrick Doherty (ph) says they're celebrating Brexit.

PATRICK DOHERTY: It's raised the issue about a united Ireland. It's got people thinking that we're being driven by what's called the English nationalists - that's who's driving Brexit. Our interests lie better with a united Ireland within the European Union. Nothing else matters to us.

KAKISSIS: About 70 miles away in a Belfast restaurant, businessman Ian Marshall acknowledges that Brexit could achieve what years of armed Irish-Catholic nationalism could not.

IAN MARSHALL: Many people in Northern Ireland favor a close allegiance to the Union and the United Kingdom and still will continue to do that. But if we see a no-deal crashing Brexit, you will create a middle ground of people who actually feel that they don't want to be part of the United Kingdom that has separated itself from the largest trading bloc in the world.

KAKISSIS: The island of Ireland was partitioned in 1921 when the Republic of Ireland gained independence from Britain. Bloody sectarian conflict continued in the north between Catholics and Protestants over continued British rule. Marshall grew up in a Protestant unionist family on a farm near the border with Ireland.

MARSHALL: On a daily basis, you woke up - and I was consciously aware of - my mom and dad turned on the radio to listen to see, had there been an atrocity? Was there a shooting? Was there a bombing? Was it someone we knew? Was it a place we knew?

KAKISSIS: The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the fighting. And the EU's open borders made the island feel like one. Marshall was even elected to Ireland's Senate.

MARSHALL: Whether you define yourself as British or whether you choose to define yourself as Irish or Northern Irish, we were all European.

KAKISSIS: If the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal by the deadline of October 31, the Irish border could close, raising tensions and crushing trade between the two sides.


KAKISSIS: Twenty-two-year-old James Toner (ph) wonders if Irish unification might save the farm in Northern Ireland he runs with his father and brother.

JAMES TONER: Personally, it wouldn't bother me. Everybody to me is the same. And it certainly wouldn't make any difference. But I think there would have to be a combination of governments from north and south, not just solely run by Dublin.

KAKISSIS: In Northern Ireland, public opinion about unification is divided but not so in the south. One survey this spring showed two-thirds supported it, like banker Peter O'Connor (ph), who's having after-dinner drinks at Cassidy's Pub (ph) in the capital, Dublin.

PETER O'CONNOR: You know, I like the romantic idea of a united Ireland. It'd be great. We play together in rugby. We should play together in soccer.

KAKISSIS: But his co-worker Kevin Nestor (ph) shaking his head.

KEVIN NESTOR: He just said it there. It's a romantic idea, but it's not feasible. I think they're their own separate country. We are our own separate country. We have been for almost a hundred years now.

KAKISSIS: And they go on like this, a sign that, despite the talk over Brexit, the reality of a united Ireland is still far away. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, on the island of Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "WRINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.