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Brexit Explained

Old wounds, new problems: A drive along the Irish border before Brexit

Before Brexit negotiations come to an end, asked communities along the border what they thought would happen. / YouTube

Video by Nicky Ryan

THERE’S A STORY about a house in Pettigo that is split down the middle by the border – one half is in Northern Ireland and the other half in the Republic. 

But if you go to Pettigo, a village which is itself split by the border, you could be told it doesn’t exist – which is what happened when asked during a road trip along the Irish border. 

We dropped the idea of finding it, leaving it with the other anecdotes we heard – featuring the melted butter, day trips on bikes, and a multicoloured boat.

But as it turned out, the house did exist. Father Joe McVeigh, a historian we met with in Enniskillen, told us that there was a house split by the border, handing us this printout from his purple folder labelled ‘Brexit’.

DSC_1479 Gráinne Ní Aodha / Gráinne Ní Aodha / /

The text underneath the photo reads:

“The house in the picture is that of the Murray family of Gortineddan, Co Fermanagh. The door at which Mrs Murray and her daughter are standing is the Six Counties. Behind Mr Murray’s left shoulder is the door leading to the Twenty-Six Counties.”

After spending several days on the roads that weave in and out of the border between the UK and Ireland, you get to hear a fair few fables and legends about ingenious ways of smuggling goods past customs checks.

Checkpoint0 An old custom building located on the Dublin Road, Co Armagh. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

But trying to sort out which rumours are true and untrue becomes an impossible task, because so many factual, first-person accounts about the border seem so difficult to believe now, after decades of peace and an open border.

That, and the stories are so good you want them to be true.

We heard a story about a fisherman on Lough Foyle – an estuary between Donegal and Derry that both the UK and Ireland claim to own. The fisherman apparently painted either side of his boat a different colour so that he could land fish in both the Irish and UK ends of the harbour, without authorities realising that he was exceeding fishing quotas.

Another rumour concerned a woman who was smuggling food across the border. A British officer who suspected her of doing so invited her by the fire for a chat, which after a few moments, caused the butter she was concealing to melt down her leg.

Border Police Operations - Swanlinbar, Ireland Police and military check cars at a border post in Swanlinbar in the Irish Republic, just south of the border, April 1974. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

We were also told about a boy on a bicycle who cycled through the border checkpoint everyday – with border officers searching him thoroughly for what he could be smuggling, and failing to find anything time and time again. 

On the last few days before the border came down, the officer, exasperated, asked what he had been smuggling, to which the boy replied “bicycles”. A similar version featuring a wheelchair also exists. 

We were later told that these stories weren’t actually true – many people claim to know the person or to be related to the person who smuggled the bicycles, but in fact, it’s a story that’s repeated along borders in other countries – as far away as Mexico, even.

The stories also hint at a split between communities, and a gap in the understanding between those in the North about those in the Republic, and vice versa. One of the people we spoke to remembered travelling down the M1 on a school trip to Ireland in the 1980s, and a friend remarking: “Oh, they have motorways down here!”

With these kinds of misunderstandings on the island itself, it’s not surprising that senior figures in the UK and in Europe are struggling to fully grasp how serious a threat Brexit could be for Ireland.

Politics - Anglo-Irish Agreement Demonstration - The Troubles - Belfast Loyalists in the centre of Belfast demonstrating their anger over the Anglo-Irish deal on Ulster's future. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The likelihood of a border

When Brexit does eventually happen, the shockwaves won’t be seen through House of Commons’ speeches, at the negotiation table at Brussels, or at the plinth in Leinster House.

The seismic political change will be felt in the wallets of ordinary people, the lives of EU and UK citizens, and on the streets of Northern Ireland.

For some people in the North, Brexit is already having an effect.

“Everytime Boris Johnson opens his mouth, the people’s wages go down,” is how one Donegal resident sees it, referring to those who work in the UK but who live in the Republic.

To be clear, we still don’t know what the exact consequences of Brexit will be, because we still don’t know what the final deal will be – or if there will be one at all. But we do know that the Northern Ireland border remains the biggest block to an orderly Brexit deal.

At the moment, it looks as though the choices negotiators are faced with are: the European Union gives in to the UK on some of its demands, such as giving it access to the Single Market but allowing it to make other trade deals; or the UK gives in and allows a customs border along the Irish Sea; or, neither give in and we’re left with either a hard Brexit (which could mean some infrastructure along the border), or a no-deal Brexit, which would almost certainly mean checkpoint infrastructure.

Customs Post - Swanlinbar, Ireland The customs post on the southern side of the Irish border with Ulster, at Swanlinbar, County Cavan. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

A no-deal Brexit means that all EU-UK ties are cut, and a hard border would be rebuilt on the island of Ireland after decades of hard-fought-for peace.

The likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is put at 50/50 by most political reporters and EU politicians – but along the border, communities are in disbelief that a border could return.

The Irish border itself

Ireland’s physical customs border first went up on April Fool’s Day in 1924, and initially, there wasn’t much concern from the Irish government and border communities.

The Irish government thought that a land border would be too complicated to enforce and that eventually the UK government would be forced to move it to the Irish Sea.

But when tensions along the border escalated – from custom checks turning into IRA targets, to armed police being sent to defend custom officers – the British government just ramped up security and the border stayed in place.

In 1970 the UK began closing “unapproved roads” or roads where the border crossed over it by putting spikes in the middle of the road, but farmers took them down and continued to use them. They tried closing the roads again in 1971 after internment was introduced – and the local communities pushed back harder.

War, Conflict and Military - The Troubles - Northern Ireland - 1994 Locals gather at Lecky Bridge, Rosslea, to watch as a road-block that has stood for many years is cleared. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

These weren’t nationalists – they were farmers trying to access their fields, family members visiting each other, and people trying to get to their village by the quickest route possible. 

“When the Troubles erupted, border areas were very quiet, there was very little IRA organisation,” border expert Paddy Mulroe told while we stood on the Annaghroe bridge in Co Monaghan – the last bridge to be reopened after the hard border was taken down.

“After internment in August 1971, you had a slight upsurge in violence along the border… and then there was whole scale closure of border roads, and that proved to be very counter productive by the British security forces.”

Many in local communities got involved in campaigns to reopen their border roads, which led to border road protests.

It was a broad section of the community that opposed the closure of these border roads… It was a real turning point in the Troubles along the border and it’s a part of the Troubles that is often forgotten.

As it stands now, the border currently runs along roads, between fields and through rivers and even divides the estuaries on either side of the border – Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough.

Lough Foyle 20 Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

There are very little signs of checkpoint infrastructure left; buildings used to police the border have either been reused or fallen into disrepair; road markings remain the same for the most part; and in places where Google Maps shows the border, you’d be staring at the road for a long time looking for any trace of a previous structure. 

That seems like the obvious thing to note – the ease of access through roads and free movement of people and goods because of the open border. But when you speak to people who grew up during the Troubles, or who own a farm or business, you get closer to understanding how vital that simplicity is.

‘My gut feeling is, it might never happen’

Talking to border communities throws up thoughts and arguments about the complexities of a hard border that aren’t often discussed.

Among those problems, are a fear that the “already-isolated” Co Donegal will be “strangled” from the rest of the country, the possibility that the agriculture sector will be “wiped out” if there’s a no-deal Brexit, and the idea that the North cannot return to a border, after experiencing peace and “360-degree access” for so long.

But as much as there’s a fear of losing an all-island economy, and a connected Irish community, there is also a prevailing sentiment that whatever happens, communities in the North and Ireland will make it work.

Soldier on Patrol - IRA Ceasefire - Belfast A soldier on patrol on the Falls Road, Belfast speaks to locals following the IRA ceasefire announcement. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Martin Eves, a business owner in Pettigo, described border communities as having something akin to “an islander’s mentality”; whatever hardships hit them, they will work together to weather the storm. 

The downside of that, says Paddy Mulroe, is that “the border turns everyone into smuggler” – but maybe not in the assumed sense of the word.

Who is a smuggler? Into the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, even into the ’80s, the most likely smuggler was the mother trying to feed her family, going across the North to get the cheaper butter and to get the cheaper food.

When you ask businesses, locals and experts living along the border what they think of the threat Brexit is posing, there really isn’t one answer:

“One thing Donegal has really benefited from is this Wild Atlantic Way tourism boost – we’ve seen a massive influx in tourists, and if the first thing they see when they turn up is soldiers and guns and checkpoints it’s really going to set us back a long way. Right now if an Australian or an American comes to visit, they don’t even know where the border is, they can’t see it – I really would like it to stay that way.” – Áine Mullan, from Boghopper Brewery at Muff, Co Donegal.
“My understanding was there was never an official border drawn up Carlingford Lough, it’s still all up for dispute. We don’t know where the border is, we know there’s a gentleman’s agreement up the middle of the Lough but whether that stands up to any sort of scrutiny, I don’t know. There’s boys fishing lobsters and they’re going right over to the other side because there is no border. I don’t see how it can [change after Brexit.]” – Darren Cunningham, owner of Killowen Shellfish, Co Down. 
“There could be serious implications because it’s not a border between Ireland and the UK anymore, it’s a border between Ireland, the UK and the European Union. I don’t think people realise what the implications are… because nobody knows what’s going to happen. At the end of the day, my gut feeling is, it might never happen.” – Brian Renaghan, a farmer in Derrynoose, Co Monaghan.

With just weeks left in this political chess game before we know whether it’s deal or no deal, Northern Ireland citizens are left without a government to represent their views, and without a certain future.

All sides are pledging to avoid a border on the island of Ireland – but with time running out and so much else at stake, will maintaining peace on the island of Ireland trump both Brexiteer’s hunt for British sovereignty, and the integrity of the European Union?

Additional reporting by Nicky Ryan

This article is to accompany’s Brexit Road Trip video, and is part of its Brexit Explained series.

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