Open border, open mind

What a no-deal Brexit could mean for Border towns

“So you’re from Monaghan? Like, Northern Ireland?”

This confusion didn’t surprise me. When you describe yourself as coming from “The Border”, people don’t know what you are talking about unless they live in Ulster. Even Britons seem to regard Northern Ireland as an afterthought, an annoying relation you would rather forget. Border towns on the Southern side tend to get sidelined by association. This was made clear to us all on the morning of June 24 2016 when the result of the Brexit vote was announced.

Ireland was recently described as the “Achilles heel” of Brexit by Lord Adonis, leader of the People’s Vote campaign in Britain: “Every time a new dimension of Brexit is revealed, the Irish problem becomes bigger.” From the perspective of the Irish government, Northern Irish nationalists, and the EU, anything that brings about a hard border is unacceptable. For the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the British government anything which differentiates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is unthinkable. There have been calls for custom union membership, a backstop agreement, and even Irish reunification. The Irish problem hardly featured in the debate leading up to the referendum and perhaps things may have turned out differently if it had.

“It does not cut around, but cuts through, towns, fields, roads, and the waters of Lough Foyle.”

The use of the term “border’ implies a bold line, something a child could take scissors to and cut neatly around. The reality is very different. It does not cut around, but cuts through towns, fields, roads, and the waters of Lough Foyle. The only sure-fire way to know whether or not you are in the North or the South at any given moment is by the text alerts reminding you about data roaming charges. This was not always so.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed the year I was born, bringing an end to decades of conflict. The worst of the violence had thankfully come to an end by the time I was old enough to understand it, but it still had a tremendous impact on my childhood. I walked past Republican graffiti everyday on my way to school. Stories about the Troubles were as familiar to us as Cinderella. History lessons inevitably erupted into a competition to see whose family member had smuggled the most butter, or had the closest brush with death at a checkpoint.

To us these stories were just that – stories. The last checkpoints were removed in 2005, when we were more attuned to Barney than the political climate. I have one hazy memory of sitting in my booster seat while a soldier with a gun stopped us as we were coming home from a nearby market. For most of my generation however, the border is not considered anything other than an abstract concept.

An open border is of extreme importance to my town of Clones, in Co. Monaghan. There are eight roads coming in and out of it, making it easily accessible to farmers and traders. However five of these eight lead to Fermanagh. At the height of the Troubles military installations were placed on two of the northbound main roads, while the smaller ones were blown up by the British authorities in order to “manage” the conflict. This was a huge blow to the economy in Clones, from which it has never fully recovered.

“Thirty years ago, a local priest would have to make a thirty-eight mile round trip to say mass at a church three miles away.”

The open border is of paramount importance to these communities who now trade, learn, and engage with each other. Thirty years ago, a local priest would have to make a thirty-eight mile round trip to say mass at a church three miles away. In contrast, half of my primary school classmates had Northern addresses. There are people living on one side who work on the other. We cross the border twice just to bring my brother to his guitar class.

A no-deal scenario means that there will be no formal agreement made between the UK and the EU. If there is no deal, international law compels us to follow the World Trade Agreement rules, resulting in uniforms on borders once again. Customs officials, police officers, and potentially soldiers. “I’ll need a passport just to travel six miles down the road”, a friend of mine from Fermanagh told me. It would mean a return to the days of smuggling and would risk reigniting the violence.

While the day-to-day lives of citizens will be complicated by the hard border, this is far from the biggest problem. We like to believe that the Good Friday Agreement represented the end of the conflict, but perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that it was not the violence but the peace that is finite. The closing of the roads cut Clones off from its natural hinterland and destroyed the local economy. It also rendered the normal social mixing and interaction which had historically taken place between neighbouring communities impossible. Even today, the presence of tricolours and Union Jacks on the border signify a divided community. Deeper North, the tribalistic signs are more visible – red, white, and blue footpaths, vandalised road signs, and the imposing peace walls, initially envisioned as a temporary measure against riots. As of 2017, at least fifty-nine exist across Northern Ireland.

Nobody was left untouched by the violence. Everyone knows someone who was killed, or imprisoned, or part of the security forces, or provided a safehouse for those on the run. The fear in many quarters is that the return of a hard border will magnify the division between two communities. Any infrastructure, such as customs or police checks, will become a fulcrum for protest, violence, and the reigniting of the conflict..

“Theresa May seems to be more worried about securing her political future and appeasing her hard Brexit cohort, than about the future of Northern Ireland.”

So, what is the best solution? My mother observed that “when borders are open, minds are opened. We don’t need to worry about where we are or who we are.”

The Good Friday Agreement was built on the understanding that we were all a part of Europe. A customs agreement, meaning the UK stays in the customs union, offers the best prospect for maintaining peace. There would be no need for border infrastructure or checkpoints, as there will be free trade between the UK and the EU. For hardline Brexiteers however, this does not give them the independence they want.

The proposed backstop agreement, where Northern Ireland alone remains part of the customs union, has been criticised by DUP leader Arlene Foster. “No EU state would want part of their country annexed off”, she claimed, without a hint of irony. Meanwhile Theresa May seems to be more worried about securing her political future and appeasing her hard Brexit cohort, than about the future of Northern Ireland.

Foster claims to speak for the North. The fact remains that her party received only 29% of votes in the 2017 election, and yet she is advocating for a Brexit her people did not vote for. Once more, those most affected by the decisions are silenced.