Derry/Londonderry: Brexit anxieties and border disputes

Our second Northern Ireland panel was held in the city of Derry or Londonderry, where again the discussion often focussed on issues that were specific to immigration and integration policy in Northern Ireland. These included fears that a hard land border between Ireland and the UK would jeopardise the peace process. Although our panel included Leave and Remain voters there were major concerns about Brexit, not only about the land border, but the impact of any economic downturn on Northern Ireland’s economy. “Nobody knows what will happen with Brexit,” said one panel member somewhat anxiously. “It’s not helping, not having a Government in Stormont.”

Spanning the river Foyle, Derry-Londonderry is Northern Ireland’s second city, with a population of about 95,000. Around 75% of its population identify as Roman Catholic, while an estimated 23% are Protestant. As with other parts of the UK, the city has seen the arrival of migrant workers in the last 15 years. The proportion of those born outside the UK or Ireland in Derry and Strabane council area, however, at 2.5%, is far below the Northern Ireland average (4.5% in the 2011 Census) and the rest of the UK.

The peace process has boosted Derry/Londonderry’s economy and the old points of conflict such as the Apprentice Boys Hall and the Free Derry Corner have become tourist attractions. Nevertheless, parts of the city still feel deprived and divided. Our citizens’ panel was held in a community centre close to the high fence that surrounds the Fountain estate, a Protestant enclave in the largely Catholic West Bank of the city in what is known as an ‘interface area’. This is where the local council’s community workers have been trying to break down sectarian divides through a ‘shared city’ programme, some of which is funded with EU money.

The integration of new migrants in such a segregated part of the UK will feature in our substantive report on our Northern Ireland visit, published later this summer. Nevertheless, there are approaches that have been used to resolve tensions in Northern Ireland that might usefully support the better integration of migrants and minority communities elsewhere in the UK.

The citizens’ panel in Derry-Londonderry had some deep-seated concerns about recent migration, with pressures on social housing emerging as a dominant issue. “I’ve no problems with people coming to work,” said one panel member, “Just don’t expect a free ride on housing.” As we have progressed with the National Conversation on Immigration, we have learned that the type of concerns that people have about immigration usually reflect local pressure points. Where school places are in short supply, citizens’ panels will often point out the pressures that immigration has placed on education. It was therefore not surprising that in a city where social housing is in such short supply, our panel members expressed concerns about the impact of immigration on local people’s access to housing.

Just as in Dungannon, members of the citizens’ panel were concerned that Brexit would mean a return to a demarcated and policed land border between the North and the South, a situation that some commentators and panel members believe might risk jeopardising the peace process. The UK and Irish Governments have both indicated that they will push immigration control back to ports and airports, to avoid bringing back a ‘hard border’ studded with checkpoints. However, news of such deliberations does not seem to have not been well communicated to local people. “We don’t know what’s going on [with Brexit], and we don’t like to think about it”, said one panel member.

There were also far broader concerns about Brexit in Northern Ireland, where 56% voted to remain in the EU last summer. In the Assembly and this week’s General Election Sinn Fein have argued that Brexit justifies another border poll, to see if the majority of the population supports a united Ireland. Opinion polls indicate that such a referendum would be lost, with most people opting to stay in the UK. But such a demand has unsettled people. There are also fears that European funding will be lost and that Brexit will damage Northern Ireland’s fragile economy, not least because migrant workers will pack their bags and leave, making the food and farming sectors unviable.

So far, the National Conversation’s citizens’ panels in Northern Ireland have talked about Brexit in a very different way to the panels we have held in England, Scotland and Wales. Outside Northern Ireland, most panel members acknowledge that we are leaving the EU and seldom express significant worries about the UK’s future. From what we have heard so far in Northern Ireland, there is an underlying anxiety about Brexit on a whole range of issues, with many people feeling they are being kept in the dark or manipulated by politicians. As the Brexit negotiations start, there is a strong argument for greater public information about this process.

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