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Dublin: 6°C Wednesday 19 May 2021

Article 50 is triggered, but how are people around the border reacting?

Where the word has been uttered thousands of times in the last nine months, Brexit fatigue has set in.

This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.

IF THERESA MAY’S words on the triggering of Article 50 were meant to sweep the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, the people of Strabane didn’t hear it.

While Sir Tim Barrow was handing the letter which begins the UK’s divorce from the EU to European Council President Donald Tusk, life was going on as normal.

The Tyrone town shares a bridge with Lifford and Donegal but wasn’t exactly buzzing with talk of a hard border.

Here, where the word has been uttered thousands of times in the last nine months, Brexit fatigue has set in.

Brexhaustion, if you will.

BREXIT STORY 6588_90507067 Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

A woman named Jenny says that while she knew Article 50 was being triggered today, she hadn’t given the subject much thought.

“They’ll be talking for two years anyway, so there’s no point in really thinking about it, is there?”

In a shop on Castle Street the owner tells me that he has no strong opinions because he has nothing to base his opinions on.

“We don’t know what the deal is, so we’re in limbo. But I can’t say how I feel about it because there’s no deal yet.”

Border Patrol

While much of the talk from Merrion Street to Westminster has focused on the border, there are some that don’t seem that bothered.

Indeed, on the drive in to Strabane, the car radio automatically switches from RTÉ Radio One to BBC Radio Two – you’re not in Kansas anymore – and Jeremy Vine is on Brexit watch.

Within seconds of the switchover, Nigel Farage is on the air, because, much like the British Empire once spanned the globe, Nigel Farage is always on a radio somewhere. He wants to talk about movement of workers, about trade and about manufacturing. Nick Clegg is brought on the line to argue against Farage and says the EU is a great thing, altogether.

Then come the gloating texts from listeners in Sheffield and Hemel Hempstead, who in unison bid “auf wiedersehen, pet” to the union. One even has a poem.

But, mentions of a border, either hard or soft, that would run from Dundalk to Derry from March 2019? Zero.

“I voted Leave, but not for the reasons you’d think,” one man who has lived in Strabane all his life tells me. “I voted Leave because I don’t like globalisation.”

He describes himself as a socialist with republican leanings, but says any talk of soldiers on the bridge to the Republic is “disingenuous”.

“I’m old enough to remember the checks on that bridge before the British Army were called in and it wasn’t a ‘hard border’ by any stretch. Me and my friends would often smuggle drink or cigarettes across.”

Passport push

Though Strabane is a town of just 18,000, there are a number of ethnic groups. Around 400 are supported by the Strabane Ethnic Community Association and project coordinator Kamini Rao says those communities are scrambling to get passports – Irish passports.

“A lot of our members don’t have citizenship, but the day the vote happened, it was crazy with people coming in. They were completely worried.

We’ve been trying to get their citizenship sorted and Irish passports are the one mostly everybody is opting for. It’s the least expensive and requires the least documentation.

Kamini says a UK passport application costs around £1,000 and may not be granted. For one family who she advises, that means eight passport applications would run to £8,000.

“An Irish application costs €195 and you pay the remainder if it’s granted.

“People are racing to get the passports done. Most of them have been here for around 10 years and had their EU card, which was fine, they have jobs, some have kids who were born here and are part of the community.

They were so easy going. I’d been seeing them in town saying ‘you have to get that (passport) sorted and they’d be like ‘yeah it’ll be another few years’, but this weekend has been constantly printing out forms.

Bridge over water

LR BREXIT 6563_90506935 A file photo shows an Army border check outside Derry, not far from Strabane. Source: Eamonn Farrell

If you take the short drive into Lifford, there’s a more discernible worry about the idea of a hard border.

Here, most businesses have their prices in sterling and euro and some remember when a customs hut was at the foot of the bridge.

“That’s what’s worrying people most,” says Danny.

“There’s nobody wants the border brought back. Are we going to have to take our passports to cross the bridge? Are people going to have their shopping checked by customs?”

That’s the feeling from most people here, he says.

A woman I speak to says that she has grown up hearing of “soldiers on the bridge and snipers over it”, meaning that Strabane was a no-go until she was in her teens.

Now, she nips across to Asda or the Chinese.

“I really hope there’s no border because it’ll close off that side of the river for a lot of people.”

Another worry in Lifford is petrol. Service stations display their prices in both currencies because Strabane only recently got its first petrol pumps.

So the flow of people into Lifford is constant, but the concern is that nobody will be willing to drive across a hard border just for petrol.

But, with two years of negotiations still to come, those worries could last for a while.

Read: ‘No turning back’: The UK has triggered Article 50 to leave the EU

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