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border town

A heightened sense of Brexit 'WTF' in Clones

Locals in Clones, at the border with Co Fermanagh, say there’s huge concern at the possible disruption to daily life.

THE PEOPLE OF Clones never imagined they’d end up learning so much about the inner workings of the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party. Or that they’d have to keep quite so up to date with the machinations of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their supporters. 

Alongside the weather and the exchange rate, views on the latest Westminster dramas are now go-to conversation openers in the Co Monaghan town of around 1,700 people, nestled around a kilometre from the border with Fermanagh and with multiple cross-border and cross-community links. 

Local businesses were given a “shocking eye-opener” at a large-scale meeting with a Revenue representative in recent weeks, veteran Sinn Féin councillor Pat Treanor said, chatting over a cup of tea in the centre of the town. 

The local Enterprise Office and other agencies have also been attempting to prepare businesses for whatever transition takes place – either on 29 March or at some yet-to-be-decided point in the future. 

A local trader said the community felt it was stuck in ‘Groundhog Day’ as political leaders – apparently jammed in a messaging loop – continued a seemingly never-ending cycle of summit meetings and parliamentary votes.

Another man working in the town, asked to describe the mood, reckoned there was “a heightened sense of what the f***”. 

2332 There are eight roads in and out of the Co Monaghan town of Clones – five of which run into Fermanagh. Daragh Brophy / Daragh Brophy / /

The Revenue service said last month it was not planning for customs posts along the border. It is, however, preparing for a massive increase in import and export declaration forms – in the region of 20 million, compared to last year’s figure of around 1.7 million. 

In the event of a no-deal Brexit at the end of next month, the relationship between towns on either side of the border would shift from free trade and shared customs rules to the most basic international rules, with trade taking place under WTO tariffs

And in spite of politicians insisting there will be no reimposition of a border between the two jurisdictions many locals who spoke to this week said that if the talks ended without a deal, border checks would be inevitable. 

“I’d go back across the border 50 or 60 times a day just doing ordinary business,” said Liam Strain, a busy local vet.

Strain’s business has already been hit with increased costs. Like many veterinary practices in the area, he’s had to open a second premises on the far side of the border to prepare for separate regulatory regimes post-Brexit. 

Vets have also been sent information on vaccinations and animal transport, and what to do in the event that the UK effectively becomes a ‘third country’. Aside from setting up additional premises, however, Strain said it’s hard to know how else to prepare. 

It’s up in the air … nobody knows what the regulations are going to be. If you don’t know what the regulations are, you don’t know what to get ready for.

Professional concerns aside, Strain said people in the area remained hugely concerned about possible disruptions to daily life. 

“People that are not from the border think that you cross the border to go on your holidays – but it’s just day to day living, going across the border. It’s going to be an impediment if there’s going to be stoppages. If there’s going to be any difference in the price of a product north or south, where it can be smuggled, that will eventually end up in some class of a checkpoint.”

Eamon Fitzpatrick, who spoke alongside Strain in the yard of his fuel and hardware business on the outskirts of the town, said there were widespread concerns border posts could lead to heightened tensions.

“For all that has been gained in the last 20 or 30 years it’s going to be lost again. 

You’d like to be thinking it’s not – you put it into the back of your head. I think a lot of people put it into the back of their head because they don’t want to be thinking of a scenario of the bad times coming back again.

IRELAND-DUBLIN-BREXIT IMPACT-BORDER RESIDENTS Eamon Fitzpatrick's fuel and hardware store are bisected by the border. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Said Strain: “The Troubles and that whole thing to the generation below us is like us whenever we were younger talking about the Second World War – because they just don’t understand it.

“It reminds me of asking my father what it was like during the Second World War.” He added: “That’s great.”

At the height of the Troubles, just one of the five roads into Fermanagh from Clones remained open. Any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint – often resulting in long delays.

This former ‘Concession Road’ is now dotted with businesses every few miles. 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 just over a decade ago. 275 official land border crossings now exist between the North and the Republic – more than along the whole of EU’s eastern border. 

Fitzpatrick’s own yard would straddle the EU-UK border after Brexit. When last visited the area around 18 months ago – and still over a year after the 2016 referendum – he said the continuing uncertainty was the main problem. 

Not much has changed in the last year-and-a-half, he said. Strain agreed. The perpetual uncertainty was having a chilling effect on business in the area, he reckoned – citing one business he knew of that had been planning a major investment in the area but decided to put plans on hold due to Brexit fears. 

Both said they’d heard of major international retail brands that had decided against investing in sites in the town as the negotiations lumbered on. 

As the possibility of a no-deal exit increased in recent weeks, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe warned that a disorderly Brexit would be an “unprecedented event in recent economic history” with exporters and food producers being hit heaviest by tariffs at first, and a sharp decrease in job creation. 

Monaghan and neighbouring Cavan have the highest level of exposure in the case of any scenario where the UK leaves both the common market and the customs union, business group Ibec has warned.

Eamon McCaughey, whose family run the Matthews newsagent and store in Clones, said he was concerned about the impact on employment in the area. Echoing the views of all the locals we encountered he said “the fear of the unknown” was consuming the area. 

“Our town here, we’ve come through so much. You go back to the 1950s, the railway closed and that was a big blow to the town. After that then there was emigration.

“Then what really, really set the town off was the Troubles. We didn’t know our neighbours. You couldn’t travel from one side to the other… There was mistrust. 

This is going to reignite that. We’ve come so far in the last 20 years – we’ve a great town now, a great community spirit. I’d hate to see anything that would knock that.

Many locals spoke of concerns that border posts could lead to an increased threat from dissidents along the border – something former PSNI chief Hugh Orde alluded to last week, when he said that any officials posted to the area “by definition [...] would become a target”. 

War, Conflict and Military - The Troubles - Northern Ireland - 1994 A protest calling for road links to be re-opened on the Fermanagh-Monaghan border in 1994. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Pat Treanor, the Sinn Féin councillor, said he hoped cross-community relationships had developed to a degree that made a return to violence unthinkable. 

“When people talk about going back to the past … nobody wants that,” Treanor said, as we spoke at a drop-in and support centre for former republican prisoners in the centre of the town.

“Most of the people I would talk to, the hope would be that politics has developed far enough that we can resolve this through political dialogue, negotiations, peaceful protests … all of that type of stuff. 

Nobody can… I certainly wouldn’t be using the scaremongering stuff at all. Anything we can do to avoid that we’ll do it.

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