The Archdiocese of Armagh, which traces its origins back to the ministry of St. Patrick in the fifth century, is divided by the border, with 40 percent of its Catholics in the Republic of Ireland and 60 percent in Northern Ireland.
Martin said other European bishops were intrigued by a diocese and its parishes divided by a political border, which is “quite unusual” in Europe.
Several of the bishops there voiced concerns about Brexit, set to take effect March 29, 2019, the final terms of which are still unclear.
The 310-mile border between the Republic of Ireland and British province of Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the UK and the EU. With both countries currently under the EU’s shared legal framework, the once fiercely contested border has been effectively invisible for decades.
In June 2016, UK citizens voted to leave the European Union by 52 to 48 percent. More locally, 56 percent of Northern Ireland’s voters wanted to remain. While the terms of the UK’s departure remain under negotiation, concerns have been raised that a British exit from the EU’s free-trade area and customs union could require a return to some formal barrier between the two jurisdictions along the Irish border.
Archbishop Martin said he had discussed with Europe’s bishops how the European movement was crucial to the peace process in Ireland, telling the Irish Catholic newspaper that “the solidarity of other European countries formed a very important backdrop and canvas upon which the Irish peace process was written.”
He praised the work of Northern Ireland politician John Hume, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on peace in Ireland.
In Martin’s words, Hume “effectively used the European platform to bring us beyond the kind of squabbles and narrow understanding of nationalism which could itself engender strife and division.”
“Hume was very much somebody who spoke about our common belonging to Europe as something that lifted us beyond the interior strifes and struggles that could happen between near neighbors. In other words, he was about bridges rather than borders,” the archbishop said.
The border dates back to a partition agreement in 1921, leaving Northern Ireland predominantly with pro-union Protestants. The Republic of Ireland gained full independence in 1948. The following decades saw Irish Republican Army bombing campaigns along the border. This was followed by violence between republican and unionist paramilitaries within Northern Ireland itself, further complicated by British military intervention, from the late 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998.
The period of violence, collectively known as “the Troubles,” killed 3,500 people, mostly non-combatants, Bloomberg News says.
The tensions, largely divided along Catholic-Protestant lines, resulted in many physical barriers. In the Northern Irish capital of Belfast, tall barricades still separate some Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
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But following recent decades of stability, many young people have no memory of a physical border.
Some families have members on both sides of the border. Workers, businessmen, university students, shoppers and other visitors could face increased difficulties traveling to businesses or schools. Medical patients could be cut off from the closest hospitals.
Farmers and fishermen also face their own difficulties.
In the County Armagh border village of Jonesborough, one village church is in Northern Ireland, and its graveyard is in the Republic of Ireland.
Jonesborough area resident and farmer Damian McGenity told Public Radio International of his own fears.
“My wife works in the south, we get fuel and food in the south, I buy farm supplies in the south,” he said. “Socially, if you go out to a restaurant, or see a football game, you would typically go to Dundalk in the south. All of that would be disrupted.”