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Schoolgirls on Brexit: ‘The adults are not thinking straight’

St Patrick’s pupils in Crossmaglen, on the Border, explain Brexit to The Irish Times

The six local schoolgirls all know it as "Cross". Most others know this village in south Armagh, just 3km across the Border into Northern Ireland, as Crossmaglen.

The village was once famous for its nationalist defiance at British rule and the de facto capital of what became known to UK security forces as Bandit Country. It is now a quiet and bustling little town with narrow, traffic-congested streets and a busy village square with plenty of comings and goings.

At St Patrick’s Catholic Primary School on the edge of the village, principal Michael Madine points out the bricks on the wall of the school facing the British army barracks in the village that had to be replaced as a result of bullets striking the wall during gunfights between the IRA and the British soldiers. The school was right in the middle of the crossfire.

Aimee-Lee's home straddles the Border, one part of her house in the North and the other half in the South

Now a tranquil village, Crossmaglen is a changed place 20 years after the Troubles ended. This could be any school, anywhere on the island. It has all the normality that comes from two decades of peace.

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This morning, the school is abuzz with kid chatter and laughter as students, from aged four upwards make their way, mid-morning, around the corridors, high-fiving the older children as they pass.

The oldest of the children walking the corridors was born nine years after the Belfast Agreement that laid the groundwork for a peace process. They have no personal memory of the Troubles.

Crossmaglen finds itself back on a front line, this time with Brexit given the uncertainty around what will happen to the Border when Crossmaglen becomes one of the villages in Northern Ireland along the new frontier between the United Kingdom and European Union from March 29th, 2019.

Madine introduces six of his brightest students – Cara Crummie (11), Aimee-Lee Caraher (11), Caitlín Patton (10), Mary Gallagher (10), Ciara McBride (10) and Kayleigh Shields (10) – who have agreed, with the permission of their parents, to talk about Brexit.

They discuss what they know about the UK’s departure from the EU, what it might mean for them, their families and their friends, and what they know of the Troubles.

Four of the girls live in Northern Ireland. Ciara lives about 1.5km from the Border, but the frontier is so invisible to her she is not sure if her home is in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

Aimee-Lee’s home straddles the Border, one part of her house in the North and the other half in the South. She starts a 50-minute conversation with the six girls explaining what life might be like for her after Brexit Day when one part of her home will be in the UK and the other outside it, in the EU.

So how does it work living right on the Border?

Aimee-Lee: I sleep in Northern Ireland but my livingroom would be in the Republic of Ireland.

Where do you have your breakfast?

Aimee-Lee: In the South.

Do you ever eat your breakfast in the North?

Aimee-Lee: No.

What’s it like living on the Border?

Aimee-Lee: Up to now it's been okay but if Brexit happens, if I look out my window, there's going to be people there. Say if Dad gives me five pound [sterling] for my birthday, am I going to have to change it into euro before I put it into my money box? [Laughs]

How might Brexit affect your house?

Cara: It might split the house up.

Aimee-Lee: Every time you cross the Border I have to show my passport saying night-night to me mum. [Laughs again]

Are you worried that there might have to be a customs man in your house if you’re on the Border?

Aimee-Lee: I hope not. There is no room for him to sleep. [All six girls laugh]

Ciara: Aimee-Lee, what side will he sleep on, the north or the south?

Mary: He would have to sleep on the stairs. The bottom step.

Aimee-Lee: Yeah, he could sleep on the stairs. That's the Border.

Can you tell me what Brexit is?

Kayleigh: The UK is leaving the European Union.

Cara: I'll help you. The European Union is 28 countries and Britain is one of those 28 countries so once it leaves there will only be 27 countries in the European Union.

Is Brexit a good or a bad thing?

Kayleigh: It is a bad thing. If we get a border, like police checks or whatever, then it could take an hour longer to get anywhere if you are trying to cross the Border.

Caitlín: I think it is a bad idea. Let's say if you were selling like cows or sheep . . . and the man who wanted them in Cork was trying to get them, he would have to get extra money to take it across the Border. That would be bad for his business.

Ciara: I don't think it is a good thing because it is just going to make it harder for everyone. So if you just wanted to go to Dundalk to just do a bit of shopping, you'd have to pay extra just to bring it back across the Border and there would be lines in the customs huts and you're only allowed to take certain things across so you'd have to be checked.

Cara: Brexit makes me sad. My dad was telling me whenever it happened [referring to the last time there was a hard border] that him and my auntie would have to lie on the ground and bullets would come over them and bombs would come over them. I don't want that to happen to me or if I have any children in the later years. The Troubles that were – I don't want that here.

Do you think most people in Crossmaglen like the idea of Brexit?

Aimee-Lee: I don't think they do because say if they were coming down to where I live, they would have to pass two checkpoints just to get to my house. Then I don't think it would be a nice thing to have to show your passport just to go somewhere.

To people who don’t know, how would you describe a border?

Kayleigh: It is like a dividing line between two parts of a country and there could be an actual wall, police checks or CCTV cameras around.

Aimee-Lee: If Brexit happens, there is going to be guards or customs or police standing at my gate and they will be saying, "where are you going?" "can I have your passport?" or "what do you have?"

Can the politicians stop a hard border from happening?

Aimee-Lee: It is hard to know because they still can't agree on whether it is happening or not.

Do you know what this “backstop” is that the politicians are trying to negotiate to stop it?

Cara: The backstop is where there still is a Border but there is not going to be any police there. There is not going to be anything, no queues, so all you have to do is just pass the Border. It's like what it is now but if we don't get that back thing – backstop – there will be police and massive queues.

Aimee-Lee: If the customs or the guards or police rule and man the borders, the Irish might protest against them and then the customs will like call to the British army and then it will just destroy our peaceful country we have had for the last 20 years.

What do your families remember of the Troubles?

Kayleigh: One time my mother said she was at the youth club with her sister, my auntie, and these bombs and bullets were coming and the roof fell in. One time she was at school and there were bullets coming and she had to hide under the tables.

Cara: Every time they left their house, there'd be bombs going off. There would be bullets going past them. Loads of people have died and I don't want to die now. Then Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be at peace no more.

Mary: See if Brexit happened now and the war started again, a bomb might go off and we might have to go under the table again.

Cara: In Belfast they have a wall between the Protestants and Catholics because they used to always fight. It just started off as barbed wire and then they had to build [it] into concrete because they were setting off guns and all through them.

Aimee-Lee: With the barbed wire, if that does happen, am I going to be separated from my friends?

Caitlín: Mum said when she and her cousin were walking home from school, they nearly got run over by one of them big army tanks and then they couldn't get to sleep at night with all the bombs and the shooting.

[Aimee-Lee’s family come from a republican background and are strong supporters of Northern Ireland’s peace process. To show where she lives, Aimee-Lee has brought with her a Caraher family photograph taken during the 1980s of her grandfather and her father’s siblings standing in two separate groups on either side of the Border to show how it divides their land. Her home was built on this plot.]

Are you concerned that the Troubles could come back if the politicians can’t agree on Brexit?

Caitlín: That could happen again. That is what they did years ago. They thought it wouldn't happen. Now they don't think it is going to happen but it could happen again.

Do you think the grown-ups know what they are doing when it comes to Brexit?

Mary: No. They're acting like children because they can't agree if they are going to have a deal or no deal. I don't like to see them fight.

Ciara: They just keep arguing, they can't do this and they can't do that. Theresa May wants the best of both worlds. She wants a good deal but she doesn't want all the rules. She wants to have it all but she really can't. She wants to have a deal like Canada but she wants to make it better than Canada and she'd call that Chequers but they did say that Chequers wouldn't work.

Kayleigh: They know what they are talking about more than we know what they are talking about but we still know more what will happen.

Do you think people in London know what it’s like to live here next to the Border?

Cara: They don't know how the Border works or they don't know how it feels like to be with a Border because all their stuff is just one whole thing. But if they come and live here, they will see how different it is and if Theresa May comes here during Brexit, then she will know how we felt.

If Theresa May came to Crossmaglen, what would you say to her?

Cara: Brexit shouldn't go through. You are not respecting our vote. It is not very nice.

[The girls referred during the conversation to a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum when the UK as a whole voted to leave.]

Mary: I would say: try harder. Look at Aimee-Lee, she has to cross the Border twice, she has to get her education. She might have to miss two hours of school.

Do you think kids could negotiate a better deal?

All six: Yes!

Aimee-Lee: Kids have a better way of saying it to people, because we are not just arguing and being all argumentative. We are just saying, "right, I am not here to argue, I am just here to prove my point of view". I live on the Border and I don't want this big hullabaloo outside my gate. I just want a simple little Brexit. I just want to go on, drive through the Border, not have to be checked, not have to show my passport, not be asked: "Where are you going? What have you got in the back?"

Cara: I think we do understand more than them what it would feel like because they're adults and they don't have much left to live for but we have our whole lives ahead of us.

Kayleigh: They are not really thinking straight. They are just thinking about what they want.