An Unforeseen Brexit Dilemma: the Irish Border

Negotiations over how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union are at an impasse in large part because of the dilemma posed by issues related to the border in Ireland. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

ARNEY, Northern Ireland (CN) — If he could, cattle farmer Gordon Elliott would take back his vote for Brexit and choose to remain in the European Union, while also keeping the nearby border with Ireland open and free, as it is today.

“I voted to go,” Elliott said on a recent afternoon, mud-flecked cattle mooing and munching on hay behind him. “I think I would vote different. I think I would vote to stay in.”

He chuckled with good humor, then turned serious. “I think there are a lot of people in the same mind,” the 71-year-old cattleman said. “They voted ‘Go’ and didn’t realize what a mess it was going to be.”

Northern Irish cattle farmer George Elliott voted for Brexit but now says he would vote to remain in the European Union. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

Elliott reflects a deep uneasiness with Brexit among people who live and work where Northern Ireland today merges seamlessly with the Republic of Ireland — a borderland of quiet rolling hills and pastures ringed by stone walls but also the unlikely place unraveling Brexit.

In nearby Arney, a rural community, Owen Sweeney, a 51-year-old quality manager, is of a similar mind to Elliot. He too voted for Brexit, persuaded in part by politicians and Brexit backers who said leaving the EU would be easy.

“It was all said in the beginning that there would be no problem on the border,” Sweeney said, taking a moment away from mowing his lawn.

Nearly three years later, Sweeney sees it differently today.

“I wanted out (of the EU) but without a hard border,” he said, using a term to describe a border with customs and identification checkpoints. “The hard border is bad. You want everyone to flow across. A lot of the business goes back and forth freely. And people travel back and forth.”

Today, the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland is hardly perceptible. You don’t pass through a border check. You don’t have to show any form of identification. There are no surveillance cameras or other high-tech gadgetry tracking your passage. Indeed, the crossing is noticeable only with the smallest changes, such as road signs measuring distances in kilometers rather miles, and public mailboxes turning from red to green.

But the seamless nature of the border was thrown into doubt after the United Kingdom voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU and “take back control of our borders,” as those advocating for Brexit argued.

However, to truly leave the EU and its regime of open borders, free movement of people, services and goods, systems of tariffs and laws, the United Kingdom would, in theory, need to re-establish a border in Ireland, the only place where the boundaries of the UK and the EU meet on land besides the tiny border of Gibraltar in Spain.

But there’s one huge problem with a hard border: Ireland suffered decades of bloodshed due to the island being split in two by the border around Northern Ireland. The violence quieted down only after the Good Friday peace process was signed in 1998, which established a power-sharing government between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and led to the dissolution of the border.

The Termor River runs through Pettigo, acting as the border between Ireland, at right, and Northern Ireland. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

“The border has always been contested,” said Darach MacDonald, a Londonderry-based journalist and author of “Hard Border,” a recent book about the subject. “The Irish border has never been an agreed border.”

The boundaries were imposed in 1922 when the United Kingdom ceded control of most of Ireland but kept six counties where Protestants lived and formed Northern Ireland.

The 310-mile-long border cut through towns, farmers’ fields and even people’s homes. Over time, as Ireland was plunged into strife during the Troubles, the border came to resemble a war zone with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences, closed roads, heavily armed British soldiers at checkpoints and frequent violence.

Very little of that past remains, with the last vestiges of the hard border removed by 2008. But many people still recoil when they remember how it was.

At an outdoor Sunday market near the border in Northern Ireland’s County Fermanagh, Sean Donohoe, a 65-year-old craftsman who makes wooden bird feeders and wishing wells, is one of those who recalls how intimidating a crossing into Northern Ireland was.

“Army men sticking their guns at you from behind hedges. Every time you came across, ‘Produce your ID.’ See if you had any ammunition,” he said. “You could be held up at least an hour or more. Every day. Unless you had to go, you would avoid it.”

The fear is that a return to a hard border that stops free movement could give rise to violence again.

“There will be hostilities; we know it,” MacDonald said about resurrecting a border.

At an office and museum run by the Irish Republican Socialist Party in Londonderry, party members said re-installing a border would spark trouble. The IRSP is the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army, an outlawed Irish republican paramilitary group.

“We’ll definitely not allow a border,” said Keith Dunleavy, a party member. “I don’t know if I can say what we’d do. If it’s put up, it wouldn’t be up long. It will be a target.”

Dunleavy added that imposing a border “would seriously damage this peacetime.”

Amazingly, in the campaigning before the Brexit referendum, few policymakers took the issue of the border in Ireland seriously, MacDonald said.

“It was totally ignored,” he said. Even after the Brexit vote won in June 2016, MacDonald said, it was not until December 2017 that British politicians began to realize what a problem the Irish border posed.

“There has been a deliberate obfuscation of the issue on the part of the British because they didn’t know what to do with it,” he said. “There wasn’t a grand scheme to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union and give it control of its borders.”

The solution that British Prime Minister Theresa May, Ireland’s political leaders and EU negotiators came up with to ensure the Irish border remains open was the idea of keeping Northern Ireland in line with EU rules and laws.

But this solution is bitterly opposed by hard-line Protestants in Northern Ireland who have long fought to remain part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, Northern Ireland was carved out of Ireland to do just this — to keep Protestants in Ireland united with the UK. These Protestants, known as unionists, see May’s deal as fatally flawed because it separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

A delivery truck crosses a bridge across the Termor River in Pettigo, a town that straddles the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

Since November, May’s government has been on the brink of collapse because she can’t get her Brexit deal through Parliament, and the pivotal obstacle is the Irish border. The dominant Protestant party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, has voted against the deal repeatedly and many in May’s Conservative Party joined them, arguing that an open border in Ireland would lead to all of the UK ending up under EU laws and customs rules.

Now it is far from clear what will happen to the border and to Brexit. The political impasse has forced May’s government to delay the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which was scheduled to take place on March 29.

So far, May has been unwilling to force the UK out of the EU without a deal, which could lead to the imposition of a border in Ireland. Some Tories and unionists in Northern Ireland are in favor of seeing the return of a border to ensure that Brexit happens.

It is possible that the impasse over the Irish border may undo Brexit altogether. Many politicians and a large slice of the British public are pushing for a second referendum and a chance to reverse the 2016 Brexit decision.

That’s what Elliott, the cattle farmer, would like to see happen, though he’s a Protestant who sides with the unionists.

“It’s the uncertainty in the whole thing,” Elliott said.

His 37-year-old son, Colin Elliott, showed up to help at the farm. He too voted for Brexit, but now sees things differently.

Colin Elliott said cattle farmers in Northern Ireland had hoped Brexit would benefit them. They saw it as a chance to do away with EU environmental laws they see as wrong-headed. For instance, he said cattle farmers are opposed to restrictions on when livestock waste can be dumped on the land.

He said they also envisioned Brexit leading to tariffs on beef from Ireland and the EU, which would have given them a much bigger piece of the UK market.

But now, upon further reflection and in the midst of the Brexit chaos, he sees advantages to staying tied to the EU.

One fear for the Elliotts is a scenario in which the UK leaves the EU and then opens its beef market to imports from the United States.

“We could be flooded with U.S. meat, poor quality meat,” Colin Elliott said.

The Elliotts also question whether the UK government would be as generous as the EU is. Colin Elliott said the family would not be able to continue cattle-farming without the EU subsidies it receives.

“Without it, we wouldn’t be farming,” he said. As for the UK government, he said it “is not for the farmer. They would prefer importing food.”

Colin Elliott said Brexit had looked promising, and he still holds out hope that it works out to the advantage of farmers like him.

“If it was done right, it could have been a good thing,” he said. “We could end up having the best of both worlds: the best of the UK and the EU.”

Uneasiness is found on the Irish side of the border too.

In Pettigo, a town that straddles the border, Irish farmers said they were worried Brexit could end up leading to tariffs being imposed on Irish beef. Much of the beef produced in Ireland is exported to the UK.

John Curran is a 67-year-old cattle farmer. “There are going to be tariffs on the beef” with a hard Brexit, he said.

For now, though, farmers like Curran are as clueless as everyone else in Ireland and the UK about what will happen with Brexit, as the political deadlock in London continues.

“We don’t know what’s coming out of it,” Curran said on a recent morning after buying a newspaper in Pettigo and heading out to feed his cattle.

Michael McGrath, a 45-year-old sheep and cattle farmer, echoed the uncertainty.

“We don’t know a lot,” he said. He added that Brexit hasn’t caused problems so far, and that it was unclear which side of the border would fare better.

“It could be worse for that side, it could be better,” he said. “We don’t know. They don’t know.”

In Pettigo, at least one person is worse off due to Brexit.

That’s James Gallagher, the 60-year-old owner of Stop ‘n’ Shop, a busy store on the main street that functions as a post office, newsagent, food store, lottery ticket outlet and coffee shop.

He said a fall in the value of the British pound after Brexit has led to a big decline in Northern Irish customers who come over by crossing the Termor River, which runs through Pettigo and draws the boundary between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“Northern Irelanders don’t spend as much,” he said.

He said about 95 percent of his lottery ticket customers were from Northern Ireland and that business has fallen off dramatically.

One part of his business, though, has picked up due to Brexit: the processing of Irish passports. Under the Good Friday agreement, citizens of Northern Ireland can claim Irish citizenship.

“I do 10 times more passports than normally,” he said, as he moved about his store, setting out pastries, warming up sausage rolls and stacking newspapers.

He was worried about the return of a hard border.

“We’ve had our borders before with violence and all that, and we don’t want to go back to that,” he said. “I remember three people were shot around here during the Troubles. They blew up all the (border) crossings except for the main ones.”

Just down the street, an empty and derelict-looking green building that once served as a customs check still stands on the Irish side of the bridge over the Termor River in Pettigo, a reminder of much darker times.

Along this border, most people want things to continue as they are.

“The border that has prevailed since the Good Friday agreement has been by far the best border we’ve had on this island,” said MacDonald, the author. “It has become more and more invisible. It really isn’t a border.”

This open border is now central to life in Ireland, he said.

“Everything is now contingent on increased cooperation, on shared identities, on economic cooperation, on social cohesion. All of that would be jeopardized by a hard border,” he said. “The best prospect for peace for this island, and between these two islands (Britain and Ireland), is that the border will slowly dissolve, as it has been for the past 20 years.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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