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Life in borderlands

TULLY, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 11: An Irish Customs Post stands alone along the border on February 11, 2019 in Tully, Ireland. Along the winding 499 kilometers of the Irish border are vestiges of a harder boundary: derelict customs houses, "dragon's teeth" bollards and two-toned tarmac. These relics evoke a time when movement between the countries was less free, and underscore what is at stake as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union. Both parties have vowed to avoid a physical border, but, as the Brexit deadline approaches on March 29, a final agreement has so far eluded them. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)


A former customs post on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic

After months of negotiations, the UK and EU agreed a Brexit deal on 25th November 2018, but optimism that the British parliament would ratify the 585-page withdrawal agreement was short-lived. It soon became clear that the major stumbling block was the so-called ‘backstop’, included in an attempt to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The backstop would create a temporary single customs territory between the UK and the EU in December 2020 if a trade agreement had not been reached by then. Critics argued that it would leave the UK subject to EU regulations but without any say in their creation.

“It’s amazing to me that it’s taken the rest of the UK so long to realise how important the Irish border was always going to be when it came to Brexit,” says Charles McQuillan,

a photojournalist who has been documenting life in the border regions since the referendum result. “I think that for many on the mainland, Northern Ireland is the forgotten room in the house. Since peace was achieved it’s been easy to not think about Northern Ireland, but the reality of Brexit is that old issues are back at the forefront.”

McQuillan has encountered a lot of anxiety among the subjects of his photographs. “Whatever happens with the backstop, or the agreement, and even if there were a second referendum, Brexit will change the lives of people here,” he says. “In many cases it already has.”

Cancer support worker Betty Holmes photographed against the backdrop of the border between County Donegal and County Derry/Londonderry in July 2018


A derelict former customs house in Muff, County Donegal

“The hardest part about photographing the border is that there’s nothing to see – it’s an invisible line,” says McQuillan. “There are villages which are half in one country, half in another. You can weave between the two just by following the road.”

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, ending three decades of sectarian conflict in which more than 3,600 people were killed, the physical line between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been quietly erased. “The only real signs are bureaux de change and abandoned customs checkpoints,” says McQuillan. “The money exchanges only exist because until recently the toll roads in the Republic only accepted euros, but now you can pay by card there’s not much need for them.” To capture this invisible line, McQuillan decided to focus on people, often using a panoramic camera to convey the length of the border – something he thought was often ignored in representations of his homeland. “The border is 310 miles long,” he says. “This isn’t a small island.”

In 2016 the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, by 56 to 44 percent. “It’s a strange situation,” says McQuillan. “The majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain, but the DUP [the largest party in the Northern Ireland assembly] campaigned to leave. It’s the exact opposite of England.”

McQuillan has found it hard to photograph vocal Brexiteers on the border. “I tried to find people from both sides, but there weren’t any people that were pro-leave who were happy to be photographed,” he says. “The majority of people are against a hard border, not on ideological grounds but practical ones. They can’t see how the divide can happen and they can continue to live their lives as they currently do.”

Betty Holmes [top photo above] is a member of Donegal Action for Cancer Care, a group based in the Republic but with access to nearby health facilities in the North. She is concerned about what the future relationship between the two sides could mean for Donegal cancer patients. Her worry is that they will be denied access to the new radiotherapy unit over the border in Derry, in which the Irish government has invested, and will instead face a five hour journey to Galway. “We are risking a serious division of people who have lived and worked closely together for many peaceful years,” she told McQuillan. “Long queues, angry people, loss of jobs, missed appointments, flights and a younger generation who can’t understand why this has happened.”

Emma Marmion at the Flagstaff viewpoint on the Irish border in August 2018


A sign riddled with bullet holes near the village of Ballyconnell, Ireland


John Sheridan beside the Cuilcagh mountain boardwalk which links County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland

Throughout 2018 the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland has been at a near record low, but business leaders warn that the uncertainty about the future relationship between the north and the south risks tipping the entire island into recession.

“I have no idea [what the future border will look like] and that’s the scary part, no one does,” Emma Marmion, vice chair of Newry Chamber of Commerce, told McQuillan. She thinks the uncertainty has risked Northern Ireland’s economy. “My greatest hope is that it will be divisionless and prosperous, not just for trade and business but for the navigation of everyday life.”

Farmer and landowner John Sheridan owns the Cuilcagh mountain boardwalk which leads thousands of tourists across the border every year as it meanders between County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and County Cavan in the Republic. A member of the Border Communities Against Brexit group, Sheridan believes any proposals based on a ‘soft border’ and new technology are doomed to fail. “I can tell you now there is no such thing as a soft border. It will become a hard border by layer upon layer of legislation over time,” he told McQuillan. “The only practical solution I can see is to have the border in the Irish Sea.”

McQuillan agrees that there is a risk of the line hardening quickly. “If you have someone on the border checking anything at all, that person needs a place to sit – so you have a building,” he says. “That person then becomes a target so needs protection. So now there’s some sort of security presence. That presence becomes an even bigger target, so it needs bolstering… It doesn’t take much to see how quickly that could escalate back to how things were.”

The biggest fear McQuillan has encountered among the people he has photographed is that the divisions created by Brexit could see a return of sectarian violence. “If Brexit is a bumpy road and jobs go and the poor are hit hardest then the danger is you get a disenfranchised youth,” he says. “Then you get people looking for something in their lives to fill the hole created by unemployment or a lack of opportunity. They could be attracted to some sort of romantic notion of the Troubles and the return of violence”.

Two weeks after MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the EU withdrawal deal on 15th January 2019, the biggest government defeat in recent British political history, members of the Border Communities Against Brexit group staged a protest by creating a mock border wall between Ireland and the United Kingdom. McQuillan was shocked at the effect it had on him. “It’s interesting how short people’s memories can be,” he says of seeing protesters dressed as British soldiers ‘guarding’ the mock checkpoint. “I remember crossing the border as a child; there would be various checkpoints and I remember the soldiers in the grass and rifles trained on the car and that was just normal. It’s difficult to imagine today that anywhere in the UK there would be soldiers with their guns trained on you, but that was the reality just 20 years ago. The worry is that it could also be our future.”

Members of the Border Communities Against Brexit group dressed as customs officers guard a mock border wall and customs checkpoint as part of an anti-Brexit protest in Louth, Ireland

A woman walks past a Derry mural by grassroots campaign group Derry Girls Against Borders, October 2018

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