In Brexit talks, Belfast loyalists see risk of return to violence

BELFAST — For the three former members of a Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary group, the stakes in the Brexit negotiations could hardly be higher. Handled badly, they say, Britain’s effort to leave the European Union could threaten the island’s fragile peace.

John, Harry and Tom — curt, graying men now in their 60s or older — each spent time in prison for their role in the conflict that divided Northern Ireland between the republicans who sought a united Ireland and the loyalists who wanted the region to remain part of the U.K.

Once members of the Ulster Volunteer Force — one of the two main loyalist paramilitary groups that carried out a three-decade-long campaign of bombing and shooting — they’re speaking in the offices of a charity working to further the peace and help former combatants integrate back into society. Wary of public exposure as former combatants, the three agreed to speak only on the condition that their voices not be recorded and only their first names be published.

Less than 120 meters away rises Belfast’s biggest “peace wall” — a towering barrier separating their community, the loyalist neighborhood Shankill, from an Irish republican area on the other side. More than 20 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the fighting, gates are still closed at night to prevent skirmishes between the two communities: On both sides, there’s demand to keep the barriers in place so residents can feel safe.

In a conversation in which tensions were broken with flashes of black humor — often at Westminster’s expense — the three men said they had supported the 1998 peace agreement that led the paramilitaries to gradually disarm. 

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