If you are not from Northern Ireland, the billboards are a shock, urging restraint in a conflict the world had assumed was over. “Paramilitaries don’t protect you, they control you”, they proclaim on the side of Belfast houses, part of a government campaign to deter people from dealing with the armed gangs which still permeate parts of the city.
They followed government television adverts last year so brutal they were shown only after 9pm — a mother driving her son to be “kneecapped”, or shot in both knees, a punishment for various “offences” that was a signature of the Troubles and still goes on.
More than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to three decades of sectarian violence between Protestant and Catholic communities, tension remains. “It’s not the Troubles but there’s something in the air,” said one political analyst. On Monday, police found a bomb in Derry they believe was planted by dissident republicans calling themselves the New IRA. And disputes between the republican Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party have prevented the resumption of the province’s power-sharing government for more than two and a half years.
It should have been no surprise that concern about keeping the Irish border open emerged as one of the greatest obstacles to a Brexit deal. Over the years, UK politicians have basked in international compliments for the resolution of the Troubles (although the US and the Republic of Ireland were central to the deal too), but the issue was neglected in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Whitehall officials sometimes treat Northern Ireland as a UK backwater and have seemed startled that in the world’s eyes, as the US Congress has made clear, peace in the province is a priority. This week, there have been hints by Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, and the DUP of compromises that could lead to a deal — but there is still a long way to go.
Peace has been good for Belfast. The city centre is now full of restaurants and gay bars — unthinkable a decade or so ago. New buildings have risen on the waterfront around the Titanic museum (the ship was built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard, whose giant yellow gantries still loom over the water).
But old Belfast is still there. The streets whose names are synonymous with the Troubles, the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, are decorated with murals of the conflict but look battered and old. There is little desire to take down the “peace lines” — barriers up to 8m high running between Protestant and Catholic housing to reduce daily friction. Schools remain almost completely segregated.
The Good Friday Agreement’s careful ambiguities set out to break down these rigid identities; people could choose to be Irish, or British, or both. Brexit reopened those old sores, demanding that people decide whether they were European or British. When after the 2017 general election Theresa May had to turn to the DUP for support, it made the UK government seem partisan.
Tension has risen further this summer, when no deal began to seem more likely. The coy reference in the government’s Yellowhammer report to the chance of civil unrest in Northern Ireland reflects the fear that farmers in the north would try to blockade the border if they saw their own products blocked but Republic goods flowing north. Other businesses say that such protests miss the point: the border would shut instantly, though invisibly, because of the legal risk those south of the border (supermarkets, say) would face if they accepted Northern Ireland goods.
The DUP has been caught between its fierce opposition to treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, and the risk that no deal could provoke more support for a “border poll” or vote on a united Ireland. An opinion poll this week showed for the first time a one-point lead for reunification. In one of the wilder gestures this week, Mr Johnson suggested building a 25-mile-long bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland; although more of a columnist’s conceit than a real proposal, it did acknowledge the deep desire of many in Northern Ireland for better links.
There are signs this week that he might be open to a more practical compromise which could lead to an EU deal. He has hinted about allowing “agrifoods” to cross the border without impediment, although businesses complain those sectors are only a third of trade. Reports suggested the DUP is shifting too and may be prepared to contemplate checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Many think that is the best chance for a deal — but a statement on Friday by DUP leader Arlene Foster suggested that the sides are still some way apart.
There cannot be a deal without solving the Irish border question. There are signs this is dawning on Westminster.
The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published