The real hard border is between people who don’t want one and those who can live with one
Review: ‘A hard border wouldn’t upset me,’ says one contributor to RTÉ’s Bordering on Brexit
Barman Chris McCaffrey
The Belfast to Dublin motorway crosses the Border line between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
One of the more ghoulish comedies around Brexit has involved the performance of certainty. Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May liked to say following the referendum, with the assurances of a Remain campaigner who had just been elevated to National Can Carrier. But what did that mean?
Another mantra of Brexiteers was to “Take back control of our borders” with scant regard for the arrival of a new one, destined to become the most contentious point in its withdrawal negotiations: the Northern Irish border, soon to be the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Would it, like Brexit itself, be hard or soft? Fractious or frictionless? Could that vexed relic of the Troubles, now made almost invisible by the Belfast Agreement and years of economic integration, ever be given a new and palatable definition?
Filmed over the course of close to a year, Bordering on Brexit (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) might have hoped, like everyone else, to have an answer at this stage. With scenes of Northern Irish farmers rambling across well-trampled paths, kids crossing a bridge on their ways to school, and squabbling scenes from Westminister relayed through living room or pub televisions, it depicts an even sharper border between the people wrangling over its status and those preparing to live with its consequences.
The latter are full of questions, large and small, covering everything from threats to liberty, livelihood and, with the prospect of renewed violence, life itself. None of those questions is settled.
“Will it be like the Troubles of the past?” asks a girl from Lifford, Co Donegal, too young to have experienced them herself. She considers her school journey to Strabane, Co Tyrone with as much bemusement as the logic of ordering a takeaway: “Are we even going to get it?”
That might sound trivial, but she is actually in full command of the absurdity foisted upon border communities.
Director Darragh Byrne is careful to include people from different political persuasions: The Fermanagh farmer John Sheridan, a Remain voter who does remember the Troubles, prepares ruefully for the worst, while Howard Brooker, another Fermanagh farmer, former UDR soldier, and Leave voter, is as firm in his own convictions. A hard border “wouldn’t upset me”, he says. “I want my country to be Britain. I don’t want it to be a European superstate... I take a wider view.”
But as the time frame is always narrowing, and as the “backstop” agreement becomes hotly contested, exasperated people become more politicised.
Jenny Patterson, the Lifford schoolgirl, writes to Leo Varadkar seeking assurances her life will not be impeded by a hard border; we accompany Sheridan with Border county farmers, B&B owners, fishermen and others as they petition European negotiators to stand strong.
One young barman, Chris McCaffrey, who once had an unpersuasive visit from “typical conservative posh boy” Jacob Rees Moggs, soon becomes an anti-Brexit campaigner and resigns to stand for election as a Sinn Féin member.
Uncertainty never lifts, of course, but responses to it are telling. Sheridan, good-humoured but pessimistic, sells off most of his cattle. “Now I’m starting to destroy everything that was built up over the last four years because I have no confidence in it.”
Brooker, an armchair politician (“No way this economy is going to shrink,” he says, even as it tanks around him), never blinks, insisting that Europe eventually must. It is a torturous game of chicken, deal or no deal, played out in excruciating real time.
For his part, all Sheridan can do is prepare for impact. “They’re just going to have to live the reality of it, to see what they’ve done,” he concludes. It’s a grim outlook, but you see his point. You have to draw the line somewhere.