LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - As the tricolour-draped coffin of former IRA commander turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness was carried to his Londonderry home this week, people across Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide were nervously eyeing a new era of uncertainty.
The death on Tuesday of one of the dominant figures in the struggle to unite the British province with neighbouring Ireland came just weeks after a snap election in which nationalists ended the pro-British unionist majority in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time.
With the impending retirement of Gerry Adams, the last remaining major figure dating to the bloody “Troubles” of Northern Ireland, the burden of preserving its fragile 1998 peace accord amidst the fallout of Britain’s exit from the European Union will fall to a new untested generation.
“It’s a big change and I think there’ll be rough waters ahead,” said Irish nationalist Edmund Gillespie, 51. “There won’t be the steady hand that there had been through all the years since the (1998) Good Friday Agreement...and there will be a lot of people trying to take advantage.”
Over the two decades since that accord ended 30 years of violence between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists in which over 3,600 died, hopes rose that a new political generation reared in peacetime would make compromise easier.
But many feel cooperation has deteriorated since the 2011 retirement of the late Ian Paisley, the most eminent Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) figure of the Troubles era.
A firebrand preacher who many nationalists blamed for helping inflame the conflict, he developed such an amicable partnership with McGuinness in a power-sharing executive under the 1998 deal that they became known as the “Chuckle Brothers”.
But McGuinness toppled the joint government in January for the first time by resigning as deputy first minister, citing the “deep-seated arrogance” of DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.
The transition from the 66-year-old McGuinness to 40-year-old Michelle O‘Neil as leader of Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party Sinn Fein has not softened opposing positions.
The March 2 election saw Sinn Fein surge to within one seat of the DUP and deny pro-British unionist politicians a majority in the regional assembly for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
Adams said on Wednesday Sinn Fein would block any extension to next week’s deadline to form a new government and any attempt to return to direct British rule of the province, though a deal before the deadline was possible.
The stakes have been heightened by the Brexit referendum last year in which Britons as a whole voted by a 52 to 48 margin to leave the EU, though 56 percent in Northern Ireland itself voted in favour of remaining.
As the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the EU, Northern Ireland is widely seen as the region with the most to lose from Brexit. Sinn Fein has called for a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving Britain and politicians across the spectrum have warned that the re-appearance of border and customs controls could stoke nationalist sentiment.
The fears of the unionist minority in Londonderry for the immediate future focus on Sinn Fein gains in the election that slashed the DUP’s previous 10-seat advantage.
“I have my own ideas about what will happen and I don’t think it looks good,” said Sheila Ferris, a 75-year-old unionist who said she was “shattered” by the election. “I’m afraid in case they (Sinn Fein) take over.”
Some unionists said the shock of the election was compounded by unease over what they felt was overly positive media coverage of McGuinness’ life.
“I‘m sad for his family, don’t get me wrong. And I know he changed in his later years. But he brought this town to its knees,” Robert Doherty, 43, said in Waterside, Londonderry’s main Protestant district.
Some of his earliest childhood memories, he said, were special assemblies for the fathers of Protestant students killed by the IRA.
But despite worries about the renewed political tensions in Northern Ireland, Doherty said he saw no risk of a return to sectarian bloodletting as the region’s ordinary people now valued peace too much.
Across the Foyle River that forms the primary sectarian boundary in Londonderry, the nationalist Bogside district where McGuinness died was a similar optimism the clock could not be turned back.
“It’s like day and night from when we were kids,” said Mick McLaughlin, 76, who remembered McGuinness as a 7-year-old boy with blond curls. “We couldn’t even walk up then steps (to the Protestant old town), we’d be chased away” for being Catholic.
“There are a few hotheads about, but generally I think people have too much to lose to go back to the bad old days.”
Reporting by Conor Humphries; editing by Mark Heinrich