At the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC) in downtown Boston, newcomers from around the world get help with everything from green cards to job interviews. But the center was founded 30 years ago, as the name suggests, when a wave of Irish immigrants landed in Boston.
“I remember going to an immigration information (session and asking) ‘how do I get a visa to emigrate out of Ireland?’ And it was packed to capacity,” said Ronnie Millar, “people just wanted to figure out a way to get out.”
Millar, the IIIC’s executive director, came to Boston from Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1995.
“I had grew up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s where every day there were bombs going off and shootings going off in and around Belfast,” he recalled, “and the deep-rooted sectarianism that we all sort of lived in, that we all sort of lived and breathed, it’s very exhausting.”
An age-old fight to unify Ireland, he said, felt like war.
But when Millar returned to Northern Ireland in 2005 the country had changed. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement led to peace. A key provision was the opening of the once heavily guarded border separating Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland in the south. People and goods now move across the 310-mile border as seamlessly as they do between state lines in the U.S.
“There’s been tremendous investment in Belfast and Derry and success in bringing US companies to Belfast,” said Millar.
Yet Ireland remains two countries and Brexit threatens to upend that hard-won peace and prosperity because it could mean a return to clear border boundaries. Post Brexit, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, will leave the European Union. The Republic of Ireland, in the south, will remain in it.
There is a plan to keep the border the open, but opponents want a so-called ‘hard border’. Without checkpoints, they fear the United Kingdom will remain tied to the European Union and won’t achieve the separation Brexit promises.
But a return to border checkpoints also conjures associations with decades of violence and fears that they could trigger a renewed fight for Irish reunification.
“This would be a backward step in the peace process,” said Millar. “The goodness of the Good Friday Agreement would be compromised … there may be factions that would return to violence.”
Tensions remain, said Boston College History professor Oliver Rafferty, but nowhere near the level that existed during the so-called Troubles.
“The fact is, we can walk the streets of Belfast and Derry free from fear,” said Rafferty. “It’s a completely changed atmosphere and to some extent a completely changed culture … we’re nowhere in the position we were during the Troubles … and I don’t think we’re going to return to that simply because there are a few customs posts along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.”
Yet, for a generation that has grown up in a peaceful Northern Ireland, Brexit creates uncertainty.
“I always thought I would settle down in Ireland,” said Niamh McAteer, a 23-year-old student at Ulster University in Northern Ireland.
But she’s no longer sure. Changes at the border could disrupt not only the peace, but also the economy. She took an internship at the IIIC in Boston, in part, to make contacts overseas.
“If stuff happened back home, whether it does or doesn’t go the way we planned,” she said, “we have another option.”
She’ll return home in June to finish her last year at university. And while she’s enjoyed her time in the U.S., she hopes in a post-Brexit world it makes sense to plan her future in Ireland.