Break for the Border? Brexit turmoil sends ripples of hope and fear through North

‘I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of the whole Brexit project’

Brian McDermott’s initial reaction to the British cabinet meeting this week was that, for the first time since the Brexit referendum, his fears of a hard Border are finally beginning to fade. Photograph: Freya McClements

Brian McDermott’s initial reaction to the British cabinet meeting this week was that, for the first time since the Brexit referendum, his fears of a hard Border are finally beginning to fade. Photograph: Freya McClements

 

In the past two-and-a-half years, people living along the Border have grown used to uncertainty; no surprise, therefore, that as the news of a potential withdrawal deal – nor no deal – ebbed and flowed from London, Dublin and Brussels, so too did the hopes and concerns of those in Derry and Donegal.

Brian McDermott’s initial reaction was that, for the first time since the Brexit referendum, his fears for the Border are finally beginning to fade.

“It almost brings a smile to your face to think that what we feared – that the Border would go back to [being] the hard Border I remember as I kid – won’t happen.

“The hard Border has gone, and I think credit where credit’s due, that’s down to the campaigning of the Irish Government with the backing of Europe.”

A chef and owner of the Foyle Hotel in Moville, Co Donegal, McDermott travels across the Border daily.

“Tourism from Northern Ireland into Donegal had definitely decreased because of the uncertainty,” says McDermott. “How and when we get that back but I don’t know, but I know that I do feel more settled knowing that this is a better deal for Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

When you have the Brexit Secretary resigning, well that is like a knife to the heart of the whole thing

There is plenty of confidence just over the Border in Derry, where the cast of the hit Channel 4 series Derry Girls has been filming the next season in the city centre. Among those who have turned out to watch is Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University.

“I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of the whole Brexit project – well, I certainly hope we are.”

To Heenan, the deal on the Border was “not much of a surprise” – “once we agreed the backstop, and the Irish government was very clear it wouldn’t be time limited . . . then the only way for that to be achieved was for Northern Ireland to remain in some parts of the single market at least and within a customs union, so I think that’s been inevitable since we signed up to that backstop.”

The criticism of the deal in the UK parliament and ministerial resignations are equally unsurprising: “That deal will not go through the Commons, the resignations were entirely predictable, sterling will collapse, the markets will tumble, Labour will go for a vote of no confidence which they won’t win because they’re a shambles, and I think we’ll end up with a second referendum,” Heenan predicts.

“The other interesting thing is the number of ardent, hardline Brexiteers coming out and saying what is being offered is actually worse than staying in the EU.”

Irwin Armstrong agrees. A Conservative and CEO of Ciga Healthcare, based in Ballymena, Co Antrim, he describes himself as a “staunch Brexiteer all the way”.

“Staying in the EU would be better than that agreement.”

According to Armstrong, the draft agreement on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is “finished”.

“Forget about that,” he says. My views have been that the whole negotiations have been a complete shambles, they carried on like amateurs. In business they wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds.

“When you have the Brexit Secretary resigning, well that is like a knife to the heart of the whole thing because it tells me he was Brexit Secretary in name only.

“How is Teresa May going to get the votes she needs to get this through parliament? They’re not there.

“I think, horribly, is that what we’re looking at is no deal. I don’t think there’s any chance of Brexit falling apart. I see no deal, which will be a disaster for Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

McDermott believes it could lead to the collapse of May’s government - and, in turn, another referendum.

Mark Durkan, former Foyle SDLP MP, advocates caution. “Not to take away from the achievement of the deal, but we have to be realistic.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Mark Durkan, former Foyle SDLP MP, advocates caution. “Not to take away from the achievement of the deal, but we have to be realistic.” Photograph: Alan Betson

“If it tumbles the government, you’d have to go back to the people, and I don’t think there’s any chance the Leave vote would win a referendum the second time.”

The former Foyle MP, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan, advocates caution. “Not to take away from the achievement of the deal, but we have to be realistic.

“In Northern Ireland we’re not starting from the ideal situation, and while it mitigates some of the risks in terms of the doubt that Brexit brought for the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement here, it doesn’t take care of everything.

“Having a productive review, or renewal, or reboot of the agreement should be linked to a review of the backstop itself, and the job of keeping the agreement in good working order will fall to the parties here.”

Indeed, Heenan argues it could be a defining moment not just for Brexit, but for unionism – and, potentially, for a united Ireland.

“The DUP put themselves on a hook that they couldn’t get themselves off by saying this was eroding the union that this would lead to the breakup of the UK. How would it – we already have regulatory differences?

“What was the DUP’s alternative? Where were their policy papers, their briefs? They had none. They produced nothing other than saying we’re going to get on a plane and say no. Well if that’s the best you can do don’t be surprised if you get jettisoned,” she says.

“I think the DUP just looks entirely incompetent, everybody predicted this would happen.

“I think they will look back and say this was a defining moment for us and disastrous, the idea that we insisted upon we cannot have a separate approach in Northern Ireland never made any sense because we already have a separate approach.

“I think actually unionists are beginning now to say, why did they endorse Leave?”

Playwright Jonathan Burgess has heard similar concerns expressed within unionism. He prefers to describe himself as a loyalist, rather than a unionist because of its working-class connotations; a Remain voter, he feels that, within unionism, a lot of people feel let down by the DUP and that their stance has been “very, very detrimental” – not least, to his own understanding of his British identity as rooted in multiculturalism.

“It’s almost like our version of Donald Trump rhetoric,” he says.

“Arlene Foster has done more to advance a united Ireland than the IRA ever did.”

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