‘Ready for what? It is completely unknown’ – Brexit and the Border

South Armagh people unsure of impact on them if UK crashes out of EU

Pat Rice’s house is divided by the Border. It is an invisible one - for now.

Straddling the geographical divide between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the retired postmaster's house is on the front line of Brexit, literally.

His sitting room is in the North and his kitchen in the South. If you drew a line along the Border here, it would run from next to Rice’s kitchen sink through his television and out front into his driveway, splitting it in two.

“You are walking on the line here now,” he said, as he strolled out towards the main road.

From October 31st, a new border will fall across his home: the front door of the house will remain in the UK and the back door will stay in the European Union

The Border then runs out into the middle of Church Hill, the road outside the house, and up around the village of Jonesborough in south Armagh.

Rice’s address is officially in Northern Ireland. He pays his local rates in the North, but his electricity comes from the South; the meter is in his garage, in the Republic, he says.

“It’s grand, not a bloody bit of difference,” said Rice of living right on the Border. “But there was a time when to get from here to there, legally, you had to go right around the Border posts where the custom posts was,” he added, referring to the former checkpoint a few kilometres away.

The only thing that once identified the Border on his family’s land was a “A-L” marker signifying the Armagh-Louth divide that ran through an old pig shed.

“I don’t know where that wee marker went to,” he said.

From October 31st, a new border will fall across his home: the front door of the house will remain in the UK and the back door will stay in the European Union.

“I don’t know until it happens and we’ll see,” he said when asked what might happen.

Rice and a neighbour, Michael Aiken, whose family have owned the farm across the road for decades, joke about Pat crossing a hard Border in the house between him and his wife should one emerge post-Brexit.

“What will do you about crossing the Border there?” said Aiken, laughing as the men chat at Rice’s front gate on a sunny afternoon.

“It’s crazy stuff, crazy,” said Rice.

“It is completely ridiculous,” adds Aiken.

Political developments

Two months from Brexit, the people of this Border community are increasingly nervous that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal. They are particularly alarmed at the political developments in London this week when the new British prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans to prorogue parliament until October in a move that will reduce the time that MPs have to block a disorderly no-deal exit.

This would not just disrupt tens of million of euro of frictionless trade flowing every day across the Border, but locals here are concerned that any kind of hard border infrastructure such as a customs or animal checks post on the M1 motorway below Jonesborough village will become a target for republicans.

"Our fear is that the minute they start to put something down, there are guys itching to take it down," says Aiken, a nephew of the late concert promoter Jim Aiken who grew up in Jonesborough. "There are still a lot of dissatisfied guys out there who would like the disagreement."

He says that it would not just be paramilitaries who react, but local people and businesses would move to take down any obstacles put up on the Border just like they did in the 1950s when the roads were blocked with big iron spikes.

Born two years before the Troubles began, Aiken remembers the gun battles over his family farm between the IRA, firing from behind the “March Wall” – the wall that follows the Border on the hillside a few hundred metres beyond Rice’s house – and the British army on the hill opposite Aiken’s home.

Now, apart from the odd memorial, there are few reminders of the conflict around here.

“This could be the Kerry-Limerick border – it is absolutely no different,” said Aiken.

It could end up a united Ireland sooner than they think. They could be driving themselves towards it

“If they had just left things the way they were, things were fine,” said Rice.

Rice believes it “nearly impossible” for any checks to happen on the M1 below the village now, pointing to the steady flow of lorry traffic travelling at speed in both directions across the Border below.

“If you have a hold-up on the road for five minutes down there, the queue will go back about five or six miles. It just wouldn’t work. Lorries and all that and all the delays... there would be riots.”

Aiken, who lives in Rostrevor, Co Down, and runs a business in north Co Dublin, is still assessing Johnson's latest Brexit move and what it might mean for the Border area.

"I think Boris Johnson wants no deal," he said. He believes the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up Johnson's Tory government, wants a no-deal Brexit too, regardless of the consequences for Northern Ireland.

“They will just sink their own constituents,” he said.

The idea of limiting Border checks or moving them away from the Border to depoliticise the process of protecting the EU’s single market in a no-deal Brexit would not work, locals here argue.

“It is the same thing. It is dividing the country whether the Border is there or six miles down the road,” said Aiken, pointing to the motorway.

Despite the impasse between the EU and the UK – and the criticism levelled at the Irish Government – he thinks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney have played the Brexit game well.

“The only thing they haven’t done is to prepare people for a no-deal because we all thought that there was never going to be a no-deal. But I mean ready for what? It is completely unknown,” he said.

In these parts, there is little else that people in farming and business are talking about.

A local farmer on the Border on the far side of Crossmaglen has named one of his cows NoBrexit. The cow stands in a field in Northern Ireland next to the Border, across a narrow lane from cows in the Republic.

Farmers around here worry about the practicalities of managing the movement of livestock and animal produce if there is no deal.

‘Two tarmacs’

On the other side of the motorway from Jonesborough, in Clontigora, farmer Seamus “Jazz” McDonnell points to the “two tarmacs” on the road a short walk from his farm as the only sign of the Border closest to him. There are at least eight Border crossings within a five-mile radius of his home, he says.

He recalls the Border crossing outside his house being “cratered” by the British army during the Troubles and the “banging all the time” from the nearby customs posts being blown up and other explosions. He also remembers being “afraid of your life” going out into the fields at night with a torch during “lambing” season.

McDonnell believes that if he had to pass through Border checks and pay hefty World Trade Organisations tariffs on exporting his lambs to the Republic - where 50 per cent are sold – it would wipe out his business.

“A no-deal Brexit is a disaster for everyone. My view is: leave it the way it is. If the thing’s not broke, don’t fix it,” said McDonnell, one of two local men who became the faces of the anti-Brexit campaign in this area when they dressed up as customs men at a mock Border checkpoint in early 2017.

Johnson has firmly put a no-deal Brexit on the table, says McDonnell, a member of Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB), a lobby group campaigning to prevent this area being taken out of the EU.

In this region, support for remaining in the EU was higher than across the rest of Northern Ireland in the 2016 ballot; the vote was 63 per cent compared with 56 per cent across the North.

“He has put the country silly,” said McDonnell of the new UK prime minister.

He believes there should be another referendum because Johnson “bluffed the people” during the Brexit campaign and “brainwashed them” with false claims printed on a “big red bus” about the benefits that would flow from being out of the EU.

In a no-deal scenario, he expects a border poll within six months and support to turn to Irish unification in Northern Ireland, despite the willingness of the DUP to tolerate a crash-out Brexit.

“It could end up a united Ireland sooner than they think. They could be driving themselves towards it,” he said.

West of Jonesborough, another farmer and BCAB campaigner, Damian McGenity, believes the chances of a no-deal Brexit are “very high”.

“It is one of these things that is unstoppable,” he said. “I don’t see how we are going to avoid it at this particular juncture. The consequence of no-deal is going to be catastrophic.”

Johnson is “playing for time” and “running down the clock”. As for the Irish Government, McGenity’s only criticism of Varadkar and Coveney is that they have not spelled out in clear terms what a no-deal will look like.

“It is a bit like someone who is ill, who sits down with their doctor; they want to know what is the consequence of my illness. The Government owe it to the people to be frank and honest – not to scare people – but to say in practical terms what a no-deal will look like,” he said.

“If you run businesses, and run farms and cross the Border multiple times as a part of your business you need to know what the consequence will be. Today, this close to a no-deal Brexit, we don’t.”

Driving along a Border road, McGenity stops under a stone bridge near Moyry Castle, 500m from the Border. The Dublin-to-Belfast Enterprise train flies past overhead as he chats.

McGenity points out that this bridge was “blown up” many times during the Troubles.

“Who wants to go back to that? Who wants to give any of these people the justification to continue any armed activity? We have peace and we want peace to bloody well stay here,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

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