Ireland vs the border

Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

For a few days after the vote Séamas O’Reilly was, in his own words, “the internet’s premier exponent of post-Brexit panic.” The writer’s stark warning – an essay broadcast in 34 separate tweets – of what the future may hold for his birthplace of Northern Ireland reached an audience of millions.

O’Reilly suddenly and unexpectedly found himself explaining to the world how the Leave vote might destabilise the only place in the UK that shares a land border with an EU country. “The Republic of Ireland is at the back of my dad’s garden,” says the 30-year-old, who was raised in Derry. “My sister lives in Donegal and has a ten-minute commute to a job in another country. Will she have to go through border checks every day? Nobody was talking about the impact of the referendum on Northern Ireland.”

The second biggest city in Northern Ireland, Derry, also known as Londonderry (nationalists usually prefer the former, unionists the latter), is just a few miles from the Republic of Ireland – you can take the Buncrana Road out of town and you’ll be in County Donegal in ten minutes. There’s no visible border, just advertisements for money-exchange firms and small signs showing the speed limit in kilometres or miles, depending on which side of the road you’re travelling. Farms – and even some houses – straddle the border, which is now due to separate the UK from the EU.

Derry has long been contentious territory. It was the birthplace of the Troubles, the 30-year conflict between unionists and nationalists which began after a 1968 civil rights march on its streets turned violent. It was also the site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, in which 14 unarmed protesters were killed by the British military.

O’Reilly remembers his childhood as a time of military checkpoints, machine guns and sniffer dogs, permanent border posts and the occasional blockading of the narrow country lanes that wind from Derry to Donegal through the rolling countryside. Now, nearly two decades after the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to the island, he fears the possible return of a physical border could have a psychological impact on a population traditionally divided between those who identify as Irish and those who consider themselves British. “I don’t want any more lines on the map of Ireland,” he says. “A border, a physical representation of separation, could embolden a section of the population that seeks to build up sectarian tensions. There’s so much historical baggage.”

There’s no shortage of people keen to voice their thoughts on Brexit at Sandinos, a Derry bar named for a Nicaraguan left-wing revolutionary where Free Palestine banners and Che Guevara posters hang from the walls. “The name alone rubs me raw,” says Karl Phelan, a busker who’s spent the day singing Irish folk songs and a spot of Johnny Cash. “British exit. Last time I checked it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but I guess ‘Ukexit’ isn’t as catchy. Look at the Olympics, with Team GB and not Team UK. People forget we exist.”

“Speak to anybody in this bar,” he says, “and I bet at least one of their grandparents – and probably all their grandparents – came from County Donegal. Derry is eastern Donegal. A natural link was interrupted by the partition of Ireland in 1921, and now we’re worried that the link could be washed away by ‘Brexit’, as you call it.”

Other Sandinos punters are more optimistic. Eamonn McCann, a pro-Leave member of the Northern Ireland assembly for Foyle (the name of the river is used for the constituency to avoid the Derry/Londonderry controversy) believes there isn’t the political will for a hard border. “The British government doesn’t want it, the Irish government doesn’t want it, and there is not a single person on this island who wants it,” says the bespectacled politician. “The idea that you might have a customs post stopping cars and looking for contraband is absolutely ludicrous. Nobody in their right minds would agree to staff it, so it would have to be people coming from England, and people here would sooner starve in the streets than agree to let the English stand on Buncrana Road.”

McCann – a member of the left-wing People Before Profit party – is among the 44 percent of the Northern Irish electorate that voted Leave. He advocated a so-called ‘Lexit’ position, arguing that “the breakup of the EU is in the interests of working class people”.

Photo: Brian Lawless / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Toni Forrester Photo: Brian Lawless / PA Wire/Press Association Images

We’re used to an invisible, fluid border, and now we’re scared of tailbacks and traffic jams in the future” – Toni Forrester

Most Northern Irish leavers, however, live in areas where the right-wing unionist and staunchly Eurosceptic DUP party wins the most votes. In Foyle, dominated by the nationalist parties of the SDLP and Sinn Féin, just under 80 percent voted to stay in the EU, the highest Remain vote outside of London and Gibraltar. The local landslide didn’t surprise Gavin Killeen, who as president of Derry’s chamber of commerce had polled his members in advance and foreseen similar results. But the national result came as a huge shock. “That Friday was like a death,” says Killeen, whose printing firm, Nuprint Technologies, is located in an industrial park near the border. Around a third of the parked vehicles have Republic of Ireland number plates. “The benefit of being part of the European community to Northern Ireland has been enormous,” Killen says. “The peace process happened because Ireland and the UK joined the EU at the same time in 1973, and they were able to develop a relationship. The peace process was based on a European model for peace. We have to thank the EU for the peace we have today.”

Killeen details the various ways he fears the vote may hurt Derry businesses. The fledgling tourism industry, which has fought to change perceptions of the city, might suffer if it becomes tougher for non-UK citizens to visit. Local universities might lose important funding and vital European partnerships. Companies reliant on Eastern European workers may struggle to find and retain staff. He is confident that lawmakers will seek to retain the free movement of people within the island of Ireland, but he’s puzzled by the implications for trade. “How can you have two different trading jurisdictions – one inside Europe, one outside Europe – without the movement of goods and services becoming customs controlled?” he asks. “There would need to be checks and I don’t know how that will work out.”

“People here were devastated by the result,” says Toni Forrester, Killeen’s opposite number in picturesque Letterkenny, the biggest town in County Donegal. “Thousands of people, including me, commute over the border every day. We’re used to an invisible, fluid border, and now we’re scared of tailbacks and traffic jams in the future.” Apart from a narrow strip of land, Donegal is cut off from the rest of the Republic. “Our businesses have to go through Northern Ireland to reach customers and suppliers in Dublin. We already struggle to get investment due to the bad roads; we can’t afford more obstacles.”

Whether these obstacles are mounted depends not only on the governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but also on the Northern Irish Assembly and – perhaps most critically – the EU itself. Two days before the referendum Theresa May told the BBC that it was “inconceivable” that Ireland wouldn’t have border controls if the UK voted to leave. A month after the vote, in a meeting with Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, in Belfast, May declared that a “practical solution for everybody will be found”. This pledge came days after Irish taoiseach Enda Kenny declared that there “will not be a hard border” in Ireland.

Everybody wants a solution, but nobody seems to have one yet. Killeen thinks a likely outcome is the introduction of border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Treating UK citizens as foreigners at airports will make some people – especially unionists – upset, he says, but there has to be a compromise to prevent EU nationals flying to Ireland and entering the UK by hopping over an open border.

Séamas O’Reilly feels more confident now than when he was expounding post-Brexit panic, yet he’s still angry that the country took such a leap in the dark. “The Good Friday Agreement is extremely complicated,” he says. “It required a lot of incredibly stubborn people to make compromises that for decades nobody thought were possible. It’s a massive jenga sculpture, and if you pull out any of the pieces there’s a serious risk of undermining the peace. The way things are shaking out I tend to think a hard border won’t happen, but the idea that this risk with enormous repercussions was barely discussed before the vote is troubling.”

That risk was discussed, however, by two former prime ministers. In early June, John Major and Tony Blair visited Derry to warn that a Leave vote would probably result in border controls and would destabilise the Good Friday Agreement. During their time in the city, the pair walked across the Peace Bridge, which links the traditionally Protestant east bank of the Foyle with the predominantly Catholic west bank. They could hardly have failed to notice the large silver sign with 12 gold stars. The Peace Bridge, the sign says, was funded by the European Union.

Read another excerpt from our Brexit special here

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