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Dublin: 11°C Wednesday 20 October 2021

This stretch of border shows why Brexit will be an enormous headache to manage - we went to talk to locals

This road crosses the border multiple times in just a few miles (or kilometres). What will happen after Brexit?

clones1 There are many more crossings along the Northern Ireland border than across the whole of the EU's eastern edges. Source: Google Maps

EAMON FITZPATRICK WAS pretty certain I’d have crossed the border five times on my way to meet him at his fuel business a few kilometres north of Clones.

Having kept a close eye out for the road signs changing from kilometres to miles and back again along the route from Cavan town, I was sure it was four times, not five. But I was willing to bow to his local knowledge.

“You would have had to cross it again coming in,” he said – gesturing towards the main entrance.

The only way for vehicles to enter and exit his busy fuel, grocery and hardware complex was on the Fermanagh side of the border, he explained.

As we chatted about Brexit and what it would mean for the area, he observed, wryly: “It would be interesting to see, when you come into this yard, where the border post is going to be.”

20170831_153321 The Fermanagh border, heading into Co Cavan. There are 275 border crossings between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

I’d driven around the yard for a bit looking for parking before Eamon came to meet me, and may well have crossed the border a few more times than altogether necessary.

Of course, there’s no big black line running along the concrete. These sort of quirks of geography may illicit a sort of bemused curiosity from outsiders (visiting journalists included) but the very invisibility of the border has opened up trade and improved community relations exponentially since the beginning of the peace process.

People around here have strong memories of closed roads and British Army border checks, though – and recent proposals from London about how the border could be handled, post-Brexit, have done little to calm local fears of a massive negative impact on day-to-day business.

There are even concerns that any border controls that may be brought in will be seen by some as potential targets for violence.

Border roads 

There are eight roads in and out of the Co Monaghan town of Clones – five of which run into Fermanagh.

At the height of the Troubles, most of these routes into the North were closed. Just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint – often resulting in long delays.

That main route – the former ‘Concession Road’ – is now dotted with businesses every few miles (or kilometres): petrol stations, off-licences – a sole, shuttered firework store. Countless botharíns run off it to either side – but at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s these routes were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

Routes along the length of the border began reopening from the 1990s – with the last few roads and bridges being repaired and reopened around a decade ago. 275 land border crossings now exist between the North and the Republic – more than along the whole of EU’s eastern border.

Eamon Fitzpatrick, the fuel and hardware man, said the return of checkpoints was his “biggest fear”. The return of controls in the wake of a UK exit from the EU threatens an administration nightmare for small and medium businesses.

The unique location of Fitzpatrick’s company – which actually straddles the border – underscores those concerns. He has customers and suppliers coming and going the whole time.

“If there’s checkpoints on the road – with Brexit does that allow us to continue coming into the yard via the North or does it mean me having to put a new access route into the yard to come solely south?

I don’t know – but that’s big expenditure.

More than a year after the Brexit referendum, and just over a year-and-a-half until the expected exit date for the UK in March 2019, London’s most significant move on the border to date has been the publication, last month, of a position paper.

No customs posts would be needed on roads in and out of the North, the paper said. Instead, there would be a wide-ranging exemptions for small and medium businesses – meaning they wouldn’t have to comply with new customs tariffs.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he found the proposal worrying  - adding “creativity and flexibility can’t be at the expense of the integrity of the single market and customs union”.

Fitzpatrick’s criticism of the plan was a little more direct: ”They’re clowns…. They haven’t a clue.”

“At the moment, the uncertainty is the problem,” he added.

That uncertainty means planning for the medium-term future has been put on the backburner for Fitzpatrick for now, in the absence of any definitive agreement between the powers-that-be in London, Dublin, Berlin and Brussels.

You’re basically in limbo here – you don’t know where you’re going.

20170831_112818 Eamon Fitzpatrick of Fitzpatrick Fuels and Hardware. His business, to the north of Clones, would straddle the EU border after Brexit. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Back in Clones itself, later in the morning, another business owner said that the protracted uncertainty over Brexit meant he was faced with a whole range of questions he hadn’t anticipated.

Colm Connolly started his food business, Rucksnacks, two years ago and the beef jerky snack is already being stocked in Supervalu stores.

The business recently relocated to Monaghan from Cookstown in Tyrone. But amid a state of near-paralysis in the Brexit negotiating process, they’re considering moving again.

“Our home farm is based in Monaghan. But in terms of markets … that’s the biggest struggle for us, because Ireland’s only maybe a tenth of the size of the UK for our product. We haven’t actively pushed into the UK as maybe other companies have - because there’s just so much uncertainty.

We’re not sure if we should go up and spend the money there – so we’re actually pushing a lot more in Germany. Our particular snack is a beef snack that’s very popular in Germany.

Trade tariffs – the taxes imposed on imports and exports – are a major concern, said Connolly. Irish companies are facing into an uncertain trading landscape ahead of the looming Brexit ‘cliff-edge’ in 2019.

The worst case scenario – a return to World Trade Organisation rules – would mean an enormous hike in tariffs for food exporters selling into the UK from the Republic.

“The risk of something happening around tariffs is a big one for us because we’re in a growth stage,” Connolly said.

Connolly was advised recently that the question of where to locate was the biggest decision his fledgling snack company would face. A move just a few miles across the border, into Fermanagh, would make sense “because if anything happens then you have access to a much larger market for our product than exists in Ireland – and we don’t have any problems with tariffs”.

20170831_131947 The Main Street of Clones in Co Monaghan. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

As companies in the area continue to endure planning headaches in advance of the UK’s planned 2019 exit, retailers and other businesses have been forced to cope with the impact on the euro-sterling exchange rate.

The weak pound has driven shoppers north in search of bargains in the wake of last year’s referendum result. Big ticket items are proving popular, with one car dealership in the North reporting an 18% jump in used-car sales to customers in the Republic, according to a recent report in the Irish Times.

“People around here talk about the rate the way a Kilkenny man talks about hurling,” is how Bernard McNally, the owner of the local Supervalu put it.

It’s the topic of conversation first thing in the morning – what’s the weather and what’s the rate? People carry around two wallets – a sterling wallet and a euro wallet – so we’re very in tune with the fluctuation.

“It has definitely had an effect,” on business in the Monaghan town, McNally said.

As for how his own business is faring: ”I think we’re still fairly competitive. Sometimes I think that the public feel that they’re missing out on something if they don’t go (North) because of the publicity – whereas there often isn’t a reason to go.

I do believe that if you did a full basket shop in one place or the other you’d be fairly close.

And while McNally may be pragmatic about the impact of Brexit on his trade to date, he’s concerned about the fortunes of the area in general, and still finds it hard to believe the result went the way it did in 2016.

He recalls: “I often describe it as our JFK moment.”

20170831_130136 Colm Connolly of Rucksnacks is considering relocating his startup business amid uncertainty over Brexit. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Bad blood 

The border checkpoints placed a major burden on locals in the 1970s and 80s. Farmers and other workers were forced to make long detours to avoid roads that had been blocked or blown up.

Sectarian killings had sparked an upsurge in those army road closures – including the 1972 murders, within the space of 24 hours, of an off-duty member of the UDR by the IRA, and the killing of two Catholic farmers the following day by members of the British Army.

Author Colm Toibín, who walked the border in the months after the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1986, later documenting the journey in his book Bad Blood, described how an atmosphere of tension and mistrust had become entrenched in the area.

The IRA regarded members of the security forces as legitimate targets. The Protestant farming community had become deeply suspicious of Catholics – any of whom, they believed, could have been part of the IRA’s information network.

Only 20 cross-border roads were open at the height of the Troubles. Locals would occasionally stage unofficial reopenings of border routes – prompting further conflict with authorities.

Paul Gibbons, who’s in his mid-40s, said the area had changed beyond recognition since the start of the peace process in the 1990s.

“A life-changing event,” is how he describes the reopening of the roads.

“I’m old enough to remember the pervading atmosphere at the time. It wasn’t a good place to be in or grow up in.

In the last 20 years you’ve got the demilitarisation, you’ve got the opening of all the border roads and you’ve had communities coming together.

War, Conflict and Military - The Troubles - Northern Ireland - 1994 Members of the Fermanagh/Monaghan Community Association protest at Rosslea in 1994. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Gibbons, who is now a local organiser for Border Communities Against Brexit, also met me at Fitzpatrick’s garage.

Eamon Fitzpatrick is part of the campaign group too. And although the two men are campaigning to lessen the effects of Brexit – neither can envisage a scenario in which it goes ahead and some sort of customs posts are not reintroduced.

“I can’t see any way at all,” said Gibbons

From the UK’s point of view – they’re going to have to check along the border as well for inward immigration from Ireland into the UK.

The checkpoints were a massive drag on everyday life in the 70s and 80s, Fitzpatrick recalled.

“We would have a farm down the road from where we’re standing now.

When the border was closed down I had to go nine miles to go to a farm that was a mile and a half down the road.

And while neither of the men is predicting an upsurge in violence overnight, if custom posts are reintroduced, Fitzpatrick painted a stark picture of how friction could soon arise.

“The decent people are not going to cause hassle. The people who would case the hassle are the people that would profiteer on the back of Brexit.

You know, if some man goes up to the border one night and [an official] put up their hand to stop him at the border, and he drives through them… The next night then somebody – the gardaí or whoever – will be at the post, there’ll be a shot fired or something, and it will escalate.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he concluded. Gibbons agreed: “Just a matter of time.”

20170831_141612 Sinn Féin councillor Pat Treanor said he was concerned border controls would become a target for groups opposed to the peace process. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie


In a nondescript building known as the Fáilte centre (it turned out to be a drop-in and support centre for former republican prisoners) Sinn Féin councillor Pat Treanor said a return to border customs posts would be a “disaster”.

We spoke over cups of tea in a room festooned with photos and placards dating from time of the IRA border campaign of the 1950s to the hunger strikes of the early 1980s.

Treanor – a former prisoner himself, in Portlaoise in the early 1980s – has been a councillor for Clones for most of the last 32 years. I asked whether – as someone in regular contact with former participants in the IRA’s armed campaign – he regarded talk of a return to violence as a real concern.

“I suppose the fear is that even if they’re talking about soft borders or customs huts with customs men, there there will be armed guards or armed people there and the tensions will be created,” Treanor said.

Will it be an excuse for those who are opposed to the peace process to start recruiting and start some kind of activity? I would be hoping that the political process and the peace process is bedded down well enough that we can raise our voices now – we can build a campaign in a democratic and peaceful way, and that our protest will be heard.

As you might expect from a Sinn Féin politician, he also took the opportunity to suggest that Brexit gave further impetus to his party’s overarching campaign for a border poll, leading, eventually, to a united Ireland.

If border posts returned in some form, he added:

I’ve no doubt that there are those on the other side who would be trying to prompt reaction – but as political leaders, I think it’s our responsibility to try and get the message out that this is disastrous and will be disastrous for local communities.

My short walk to meet Treanor had taken me up the main drag of Clones – along Fermanagh Street. And although a number of businesses on the street appeared to be thriving, just as many were closed down or entirely boarded up.

I asked if the local economy had improved measurably since the reopening of the roads.

“There hasn’t been a great turnaround… 29 premises on that main street are closed and 28 are open.

We would have expected better when the border roads reopened. But then again it could have been a lot worse, because you do see a lot of Northern cars here that you wouldn’t have seen before… But businesses are struggling.

‘No decisive movement’

Driving back towards Cavan in the late afternoon I took a few turns south off the road along some of the botharíns that cross the border – searching for possible evidence of the roadblocks that existed years ago.

I didn’t find any. Once again, the only evidence of the different jurisdictions was a change in the road-signs. One crossing seemed to have become a trouble-spot for fly-tipping – the piles of rubbish dumped in ditches just a few feet across the border, on the Northern side.

20170831_153957 A firework store - closed on the day TheJournal.ie was passing - just over the border from Co Cavan, in Fermanagh. Source: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Back on the main road, a man fixing bikes at workshop just over the Fermanagh side of the border said he expected to see a return to mobile customs controls – with teams of officials patrolling border routes and carrying out spot-checks on vehicles.

At one time there had been 40 such officers stationed in Clones, he said. “Around Christmas they could have had five or six cars on the road.”

“I can’t see any other way, with the movement of people from the EU into the UK. They’ll have to have mobile controls the way they used to have. There’s no other way that I can see – and I’ve been here 40 years – how else they’re going to do it.

You have a guy coming in from Europe, lands on the ferry in Dublin and gets in his car and drives up here and across the border, and then gets on another ferry and across to the UK… They’ll have to plug that somewhere.

Back in the car, the drivetime news programmes carried details of the latest joint press conference between David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, and EU chief negotiator Barnier, following the latest round of Brussels talks.

Progress had been negligible at best, it seemed. Davis insisted there had been “concrete” developments; a rather less optimistic Barnier said the British proposals demonstrated “a sort of nostalgia” and that there had been no real movement.

Next Friday, Theresa May travels to Italy where she’s expected to make a major speech in a bid to kickstart talks. Around the border, meanwhile, the uncertainty continues.

Revealed: The Irish counties that will suffer most from a ‘hard Brexit’ >

Read: Former UK Brexit minister claims Varadkar ‘regrets’ comments on post-Brexit border >

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