Bordering on Brexit: what those at the coalface think
On a busy day farmer Joe Parker might cross the Border 10 or 11 times, ferrying machinery and feed between his animals North and South
Joe Parker standing on his farm in Blacklion, Co Cavan. Part of his farm is on the other side of Lough MacNean in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh. Photograph: Andrew Paton
Farmer Joe Parker drives at quite a lick, slicing through the narrow country roads that straddle the Border between Fermanagh and Cavan. It’s a struggle to keep up with his Volkswagen Passat as he negotiates the route from Blacklion in Co Cavan back to his house near Belcoo in Co Fermanagh, and difficult to know for certain which side of the Border we are on.
Twenty years of peace has seen the area transformed from one of the most tense environments in western Europe to a quiet rural backwater.
When we reach his home Parker tells me he had flashed his indicators as we crossed into the North – the bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo is the demarcating line. I hadn’t noticed.
His 500-acre farm straddles the Border. On a busy day he might cross it 10 or 11 times, ferrying machinery and feed between his cattle and sheep in the North and his animals on the southern side of the divide.
Unless there’s a major change in the current Brexit dynamic half his business will be outside the European Union in less than 100 days. It’s also possible that some form of border control will be erected on the route we’ve just taken.
“If it comes to a situation where I’m stopped going back and forth I’ll sell up in the South,” he says. “I can deal with hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt in my head, but I couldn’t go back to a hard border.”
It’s not so much the time consuming aspect of border checks, it’s the physical and emotional intrusion, Parker says, recounting the differences between his life growing up in the Troubles and that of his children’s more settled integrated experience.
Parker’s main business used to be buying cattle in the South and finishing them in the North, but he claims this trade has been kiboshed by the mixed-origin rules which devalues beef born and reared in multiple jurisdictions.
Now he keeps separate cattle herds on both sides of the Border, selling into both markets. His Northern lambs are, however, exported live to the Republic. All of this works as long as the UK and the Republic remain part of the EU.
Parker’s business is not untypical. It forms part of a complex configuration of trade moving back and forth across the Border. Agri-food accounts for 45 per cent of all goods trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Nearly one-quarter of beef processed in the North originates from the South, while nearly 500,000 live lambs were exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic last year, the majority of which go back through Britain and on to European markets.
Nobody can say for sure what will happen to this trade after Brexit. “Even this close to the deadline no one knows what’s coming down the tracks,” Parker says.
In the course of our discussion he makes a surprising admission. He didn’t vote at all in the Brexit referendum. He admits he was taken in by some of the Leave side’s arguments – the promise of new, less quota-restricted access to non-EU markets – and ultimately couldn’t decide which way to vote. He now regrets this stance.
Brexit is a tricky issue for farmers in the North. The Ulster Farmers’ Union, normally closely aligned to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), recently came out in favour of Theresa May’s compromise deal, putting it at odds with the party.
They believe the UK is better off outside the EU; that the backstop represents a betrayal of the original Brexit vote; that Fermanagh shouldn’t be treated any differently to Kent; and that a hard border, while unwelcome, would be manageable.
We’re in Wilson’s kitchen. Outside the rain is coming down in sheets. Wilson and his two sons run a cattle, sheep and poultry farm. He was the only senior Ulster Farmers’ Union executive to vote against May’s deal, principally because of the backstop arrangement, which would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until a free trade deal is agreed.
“It’s not the backstop itself, but the way it can be enforced permanently,” he says. “A no-deal Brexit wouldn’t worry me. There’s a lot of scaremongering about WTO [World Trade Organisation] tariffs.”
He says under the WTO’s most favoured nation terms British exports would be subject to the same tariffs as the EU’s other trading partners, and could be lowered even further. And as a net exporter to the UK the EU would face the bulk of the costs, not the UK and not Northern Ireland.
He used to buy cattle in the South and finish them in the North but, similar to Parker, he says he quit because of the mixed-origin regulations.
His current business is more insulated from the potential risks implied by Brexit. His son’s poultry unit is contracted to Craigavon-based Moy Park, the North’s largest employer.
The UK, he says, is paying big money into Brussels but “what we’re getting is the crumbs under the table”. It’s a gripe that many farmers in the South would share, but few would countenance an EU exit.
His neighbour McCormick, a dairy farmer, sells his milk to a processor in the South, but he is equally unperturbed by the idea of hard Brexit, believing he can divert his produce into the UK market.
“It’s not unionism…it’s not identity politics that’s driving this,” he says, perhaps sensing that I may be one of the many people in the South who can’t see Brexit outside of its nationalist moorings.
“There are strong arguments for getting out,” he says. They boil down to getting out from under the yoke of EU rules and regulations, and the prospect of gaining “better access” to international markets.
“There may be pain on the way, but it’s short-term pain for longer-term gain,” he says.The pain being WTO tariffs, the gain being better access.
McCormick also downplays the threat to security from border controls, suggesting the threat was being overstated as a scare tactic, and would in reality amount to little more than paperwork.
And May’s compromise deal?
“She’s either been very stupid or very smart,” he says. Very stupid for failing to garner a consensus on what the UK wanted prior to negotiating with Brussels and then getting outgunned in the negotiations. Very smart for conning the people into a no Brexit, in other words a remain, the implication being her deal will collapse the Brexit process altogether.
Both McCormick and Wilson believe Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could have been more diplomatic, or more sensitive to UK concerns, particularly given the Republic’s reliance on the UK market.
They reckon his stance in the negotiations has increased the prospect of a hard Brexit when all that was wanted was a “clean Brexit” and the maintenance of strong trading ties with the EU, including the Republic.
I put it to them that their views could not be shared by the majority in the North, particularly the majority of farmers, who voted to remain, but they insist their views are widely held among grassroot farmers. They are certainly shared by many in the DUP, the North’s largest political party, which has plied a hard line on Brexit.
With negotiations stalled, the Department of Agriculture in Dublin is now contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit amid suggestions such a scenario could see the Republic’s €5 billion in food exports to the UK almost halve under the weight of WTO tariffs. The standard WTO tariff regime would price many Irish staples out of the UK market, doubling the price of beef and cheddar cheese.
Back in Blacklion in Co Cavan, Tom O’Reilly, who runs a 70-acre cattle and sheep farm and rents out a further 100 acres, believes Brexit will decimate already struggling rural communities along the Border.
Like many small-to-medium sized farmers on the southern side of the Border, he relies on northern farmers coming down to buy breeding stock, and has noticed a sharp fall off in sales and prices amid the current uncertainty.
“They’re not buying the stock in the South because they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says, suggesting mart prices for breeding animals are up to 30 per cent down because of Brexit.
O’Reilly says there is a palpable fear among the local farming community that if the Border goes back up, “there’d be resistance from certain people”.
He says the challenges facing rural communities, from the lack of broadband to the exodus of young people, were already formidable before Brexit. He has seen his five children exit for the city – four to Dublin and a fifth to Canada. “There’s little opportunity for them here.”
Michael Haverty, senior agricultural economist with Andersons Farm Business Consultants, says the evidence shows there is a strong level of interdependence when it comes to agri-food trade, not just between the Republic and Northern Ireland but also between the island of Ireland and Britain as well as with the European continent.
“Brexit will inevitably give rise to disruption and any friction in cross-Border trade will erode competitiveness, particularly in a sector where processors’ profit margins are frequently less than 5 per cent.
“ For Northern Ireland and the UK generally, the sheep meat sector is the most exposed because of its reliance on trade with the EU, particularly France. For the Republic, whilst trade with France might remain frictionless in theory, any delays to shipments caused by delays transiting through the UK land-bridge would also cause challenges.”
Haverty says the beef sector is perhaps facing the greatest challenge. Approximately 50 per cent (€1.1bn) of the Republic’s beef exports go to the UK.
“Under a hard Brexit this presents a major risk to Irish farming, not just due to non-tariff measures but also because the UK might be tempted to offer greater access to its market for beef produced in non-EU countries in return for free-trade agreements that it is keen to strike.
“On balance it is in everyone’s best interests to ensure that a deal is reached which minimises friction as experience shows that disruption and adaptation can be painful, particularly for the agri-food sector,” says Haverty.
As the Brexit countdown continues, it’s hard to see how the knotty issue of the Border will be resolved. Neither side wants to see a return to checkpoints, towers, customs posts or surveillance cameras, but even this close to the Border they can’t agree how.