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Irish on Long Island brace for Brexit with their homeland in mind

Many fear the movement could divide Ireland in a way that revives an explosive political and historical fault line, and they are trying to do something about it.

Brian O'Keefe, left, president of the Brehon Law

Brian O'Keefe, left, president of the Brehon Law Society of Nassau, and Andrew Healey, president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. O'Keefe is helping to spread the message that a "hard border" is bad for Irish back home. Healey says, "I think the biggest goal we have is we all want peace, regardless of Brexit." Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hauppauge attorney Brian O’Keefe and other Long Islanders with roots stretching back to another island — Ireland — are doing more than watch anxiously as the United Kingdom tries to exit the European Union after a 2016 referendum narrowly approved the split.

They fear the so-called Brexit sought by British Prime Minister Theresa May will do more than simply carve England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland away from the 28-nation economic and political collective.

That's because Brexit could crack Ireland in a way that revives an explosive political and historical fault line — a physical border with guarded checkpoints between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.

So Long Islanders like O’Keefe are lobbying lawmakers, talking to neighbors and holding high-profile events to convince Americans that a “hard border” is bad for Irish on both sides of any new border and trouble for the United States and its citizens, who may be across an ocean but whose ancestors called Ireland home.

“There’s concern that if there’s a hard border, that could upset the peace,” said O’Keefe, 50, a partner at Grey & Grey and president of the Brehon Law Society of Nassau, a fraternal organization of attorneys with roots in Ireland. “The Good Friday Agreement has given Ireland 21 years of peace — and you don’t want to upset that by a return to a hard border.”

A bad breakup, O’Keefe said, may reignite tensions put to rest at the signing in April 1998 of the Good Friday Agreement. The pact ended conflicts between the Irish who clashed — often violently and largely along religious lines during a 30-year period dubbed The Troubles — over whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or reunite with the Republic of Ireland.

The accord, which marks its 21st anniversary on April 10, was brokered with the help of former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine.

When the agreement was signed, the border disappeared, allowing seamless movement of people, goods, services and capital to and fro without passports, tariffs and customs. By undoing the easy border crossing, Brexit could inflame the island's politics, experts said.

“The return of a hard border may not result in an immediate return to bloody hostilities, but it does exacerbate latent tensions between the communities, especially within Northern Ireland,” said Katie Laatikainen, a professor of political science and director of international studies at Adelphi University in Garden City. “The return of a hard border threatens to degrade the integration between Northern Ireland and the Republic that has contributed to dramatically reduce tensions, and to deepen sectarian and political divides.”

On Monday and Tuesday, Adelphi is hosting Karen E. Smith, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who will speak on the implications of Brexit, the United Kingdom and the United Nations and Europe.

Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) are among Long Island’s members of Congress who want a soft border to preserve the Good Friday accord. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, and several legislators held a news conference last month to support a soft border and the Martin McGuinness Principles — equality, respect, truth and self-determination — goals many Irish see reached by the Good Friday Agreement.

Alongside them were the Brehon Law Society of Suffolk, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, the Suffolk County Police Emerald Society, and the Suffolk County Firefighters Emerald Society. 

In Nassau County, the legislature's minority leader, Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), also issued a proclamation supporting the principles.

The problem stems from the fact that the two legal instruments are at cross purposes. One, the Good Friday Agreement, erases a border that was a source of seething tensions, a flashpoint for violence because it was the physical embodiment of a bifurcated Ireland.

The other, Brexit, a democratic expression of the will of the people, though it passed by a slim margin — 51.9 percent of 30.5 million people in the UK voted in favor of the landmark measure in June 2016 — could re-erect the barriers that symbolized Ireland’s divide and defer the dream of those who want to reunite the two territories into one nation. 

 In Northern Ireland, 56 percent of voters wanted to stay in the EU, and 44 percent opposed it.

“If there’s any kind of border there, it just becomes an attraction for terrorists on both sides,” said King, whose family comes from Galway and Limerick in the Republic of Ireland. “You have 80 years of a strict border where there were gunbattles, attacks, bombings and, for the last 21 years there’s been essentially no border at all. That's almost been a metaphor for peace.”

Shoring up support for a soft Brexit is a global campaign.

Last month, Louise O’Reilly, a Dublin, Ireland-based politician and part of the leadership of Sinn Fein, a political party that helped draft the Good Friday Agreement, sought Long Islanders' support at Nassau's St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. It was hosted by County Executive Laura Curran in the ceremonial chamber of the Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola.

O'Reilly urged Long Islanders “to put pressure on their representatives, in particular, to put pressure on the government here to stand four-square behind the Good Friday Agreement, because you guys helped broker it and we need you now to help to deliver it.”

 O’Reilly said she was traveling across the country with the same message.

The March 15 event, which featured bagpipes and Irish dancing, was sponsored by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Irish Americans in Government, O'Keefe's group and Archer, Byington, Glennon & Levine, a Melville-based law firm that represents unionized employees at Newsday.

"I think the biggest goal we have is we all want peace, regardless of Brexit," said Andrew Healey of Rockville Centre, president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.

O’Keefe’s law society has lobbied both county  legislatures, hosted scholars from Ireland at area colleges and kept in the spotlight an issue concerning 16 percent of Long Islanders, or 461,260 people, who claim Irish ancestry, according to 2017 census estimates.

 “The Brehon Law Society and Irish America, in general, have always been strong supporters of the Good Friday Agreement peace process,” he said. 

"We always keep our local legislators and leaders aware that this is an important issue for us and the United States," O'Keefe said, adding, "The Good Friday Agreement is such a monumental example of how conflict resolution can work that it is important to the whole world that it succeed.”

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