What Brexit means to border communities in Ireland

With the date that the UK is due to leave the European Union (EU) drawing ever closer – March 29, 2019 – no-one seems to be any the wiser about what is going to happen.  Will there be a deal at all?  Will there be a back-stop?  Will there be a hard or soft border between the north of Ireland and the Republic?  Will there be a border down the middle of the Irish sea?  Maybe there will be a second referendum?

Nowhere are these uncertainties more felt than in border communities like my own on the Derry/Donegal border.  Although the UK as a whole voted in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, the majority of people in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain – 55.78% and 62% respectively.

The EU recently confirmed that it would enforce a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal outcome.  The chief spokesperson for European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, told reporters in Brussels that it was ‘pretty obvious’ that border infrastructure would be necessary if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal.

Not only would a hard border undoubtedly have huge economic and political implications here, it would pose a real threat to security and the peace process, not to mention potentially long queues at the border when travelling from one jurisdiction to the other. 

Jennifer McKeever owns Airporter, a bus company in Derry which employs staff and serves customers from both sides of the border.  Her buses carry around 160.000 passengers a year between Derry and the two Belfast airports.  She believes that the back-stop, which would ensure that there was no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, is an important insurance policy in any future deal on Brexit.  “The back-stop is important because it is essential we have a guarantee that there will be no border on the island”, she says.  Jennifer goes on to say that:

“It’s essential for all aspects of life here: trade, communities, healthcare, education, agriculture and politics.  The fluctuation of the pound has already affected Airporter – our cross-border workers now take home nearly 20% less than what they did three years ago.  Brexit has had another consequence on Northern Ireland and that is the political vacuum and breakdown of Stormont. Our so-called political leadership has used words and phrases that are dog whistles to the worst in our community and lets people think it’s ok to use language that has not been acceptable for decades.  Any breakdown in community relations will ultimately harm working relations in the workplaces.  Managing staff is difficult enough, goddamn it, employers don’t need any further challenges!”

Jennifer is obviously quite legitimately annoyed and worried about the effect Brexit is having on her business and that of her customers and employees.

On the other hand, most unionists, it seems, do not want the back-stop included in any deal.  Derek Hussey is an Ulster Unionist councillor and publican.  The views he expresses here are his own and not party policy:

“I live in a border town, Castlederg, and own a Pub in the town and voted leave as did any Unionist in this area that I speak to.  I have to say that ‘brexit’ is rarely, if ever, a topic of discussion in my bar – the attitude seems to be more one of ‘get it sorted one way or the other’ and then we will figure out what we need to do, if anything – business will deal with the situation whenever they know what they have to deal with.  Quite a few of my clients would be from a farming background and their attitude would also reflect the same scenario.

As a Unionist my main concern with the ‘backstop’ is that it treats Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the United Kingdom and thereby represents a constitutional alteration which to me is unacceptable.  It is a challenge to the Belfast Agreement, which I supported, wherein the Constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom can only be altered by its people in a vote on that issue.

Whilst I know that folk will say that Northern Ireland voted remain, the referendum was a United Kingdom vote and the majority voted leave. 

When I consider this ‘special status’ scenario for Northern Ireland i.e. The United Kingdom agreeing to this part of its territory having a different arrangement with the EU via the Republic of Ireland – I reflect as to why could the EU not allow the Republic of Ireland within Europe to have a ‘special status’ with the whole United Kingdom?

In my opinion the EU’s major concern is that if Brexit is successful others will follow.

On the issue of a ‘No Deal’ I think that there is a lot of ‘brinkmanship’ being played out and that both the EU and UK will come to an acceptable arrangement for their mutual benefit though this may mean an extension of Article 50.

Re the implications IF no deal – I believe that freedom of movement will not be restricted and that cross border trade will continue with some additional ‘paperwork’ (this already happens re VAT payments to HMRC for example) and that electronic solutions similar to the Canada/USA border will be put in situ”.

From Derek’s response it is clear that that the majority of his unionist friends and customers feel the same way about the back-stop i.e. they do not want to be treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom in any deal.

Martina Gallagher is a pharmaceutical technician who lives on the other side of the border in County Donegal.  Martina disagrees with Derek.  She says:

“I live 2 miles away from the border in Castlefinn.  I go over to Strabane about 5 or more times during the week to the gym, to shop, to visit family, to socialise   All my family and a lot of my friends live there.  I love the gym and the nearest shopping centre and town for socialising for me is Strabane.

Strabane would suffer badly as its full of Donegal people…it relies on the trade from the south.  We definitely need a backstop.  A hard border would ruin the economy and relationships.  No one wants to go back to the old days of a hard border.  All the businesses in the border towns would suffer.  The uncertainty is worrying a lot of people”.

So, we have different views on Brexit and what is going to happen here on March 29, 2019.  One thing we can be sure about is that we do not have long to wait to find out.

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