LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 19: PSNI officers stand watch over the remains of the car that was earlier hijacked and packed with explosives before being detonated outside Derry court house on January 19, 2019 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Dissident republicans are suspected to be behind the attack. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Suspected car bombing rattles Northern Ireland
01:36 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

On Saturday morning, I checked out of a hotel in central Derry, also known as Londonderry, cheerily telling staff I looked forward to bringing my family back to visit.

Little did I know that I’d be back a few hours later to cover a car bomb exploding just a few feet from where I was standing.

I’d been here many times during the dark days of Northern Ireland’s violence, but this visit was different. I’d strolled the beautiful 17th-century city walls, seeing the place as a tourist destination rather than a haven for terror.

Those decades of deadly violence had in theory been laid to rest by the Good Friday – or Belfast Peace Agreement – 20 years ago. By creating the conditions for an open border with the Republic of Ireland to the south, the Good Friday Agreement allowed for a compromise between Catholics, who longed for a united Ireland, and Protestants, who wished to keep alive Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain.

Prior to the car bomb, I’d found a cloud hanging over Derry on this visit. Many of the people I spoke to were worried about Brexit and its implications that may radically change their lives.

Derry is Northern Ireland’s second largest city, home to about 100,000 people. It is also soon to be the United Kingdom’s principal border city with the European Union.

Its fringes touch the border with the Republic of Ireland. Families straddle both countries and farmers farm fields on both sides of the border. In short, lives are intertwined and this is the reason that almost the majority of people here voted to remain in the EU back in 2016.

Such is the uncertainty over Brexit, people I spoke to were confused. Some thought they might need passports just to visit parents over the border along roads that today don’t have so much as a border sign, never mind a border post.

Others told me they feared a return to violence. It was an ominous foreboding for what was about to come.

Barely 12 hours after I left, I was back. Police had sealed off the street to my hotel and were inspecting the smouldering remains of a car bomb.

“Highly unstable and crude,” an “act of madness” intended to kill and injure is how the assistant chief constable described the bomb the following day.

The hotel had been evacuated as well as a nearby youth group and 150 people in a meeting at the adjacent masonic hall.

That no one was injured was a mercy. That it could be different if it were to happen again was lost on no one. The assistant chief constable blamed a group he called the New IRA .

Derry has a long history for being at the heart of the Republican struggle for a united Ireland. One of the IRA’s most feared commanders, Martin McGuinness, lived his whole life in the city’s Bogside, a stone’s throw from the city walls.

Before he died last year, he’d become an architect for peace, helping lead the IRA out of violence and becoming a leading politician. He earned respect across party lines for doing so.

But not everyone followed and in recent years, a tiny splinter group calling themselves the New IRA emerged.

The car bomb is a significant escalation in their attacks and although may not be tied to Brexit, it will play in to fears that the Brexit deadlock could open up the troubles of the past.

Peter Hain
British peer: Brexit chaos 'going to get worse'
14:27 - Source: CNN

The Province’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party’s lawmakers hold the balance of power in Westminster – the seat of the UK’s democracy – upsetting the delicate situation the Good Friday Agreement was supposed to lay to rest.

The DUP last week voted down Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal proposal because of the so-called Northern Ireland “backstop”, a clause that the EU has demanded to ensure the border remains as it is today: open and “frictionless.”

It doesn’t help matters that the power-sharing agreement which allows both unionists and republicans a hand in governance at Northern Ireland’s devolved national assembly collapsed two years ago.

The DUP fears that the backstop will lock Northern Ireland indefinitely in a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK – essentially weakening the Union with the UK.

A few hours before the bomb had gone off, I’d visited the DUP’s Sammy Wilson at his welcoming hillside house.

We’d talked all things Brexit. But what most surprised me most was his view that the backstop negated the Good Friday Agreement – which, incidentally, his party didn’t sign up to in 1998.

But the rest of Northern Ireland disagreed with the DUP. Over 80% of the population turned out, over 70% voted in favor of the agreement in a referendum.

Later that evening, as we stood by the police cordon blocking access to the aftermath of the car bomb, several people told us they were more angry than afraid.

One lady explained, even though she’d voted to remain, she was prepared to go along with Theresa May’s compromise withdrawal agreement and was bitter that the DUP blocked it.

She didn’t want the uncertainty and accompanying possible return to violence a no-deal exit might bring.

The morning after the bombing, I met with Derry’s Mayor, John Boyle, from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, whose former leader, John Hume, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the Good Friday Agreement.

He told me he didn’t think the bombing was related to Brexit. But when I explained what Wilson had told me the night before, he was scathing, telling me the Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct and that Wilson needs to catch up.

What I realize I am hearing here now is reprise of the generational Nationalist-Unionist struggle that in its last incarnation, “The Troubles”, led to over three-and-a-half thousand deaths.

Whoever has political sway in London – and right now that’s the DUP propping up May’s government – can tilt Northern Ireland toward weaker or stronger ties to mainland UK or Ireland. Uncertainty over Brexit is akin to picking at barely healed scabs.

As pressure to solve the Brexit border conundrum grows, so will political tensions in Northern Ireland.

Reports on Monday morning that Theresa May wanted to rewrite the Good Friday Agreement – quickly knocked down by Downing Street – are an indication of the political kites being flown in London with little regard for how they impact in Northern Ireland.

Derry’s chamber of commerce president told me pretty much the same thing, frustrated May and had overlooked the historical depth of division in Northern Ireland.

No one here wants a return to violence on the scale previously seen. But as I write, police in Derry report that a van has been hijacked by three masked men and a bag thrown in the back. Houses nearby have been evacuated.

Police are reporting further security incidents involving the hijacking of two vans by two different groups of armed masked men. Both incidents bear the hallmarks of the hijacking leading to Saturday’s bombing, heightening concerns it’s wasn’t a one off attack.

Far from London, Brexit is having unintended consequences. And Derry, not for the first time in its history, seems to be on the front line of failures to compromise.