Ireland's Call: From ‘Bandit country’ to Brexit’s frontier
People in the south Armagh town of Crossmaglen fear the return to a hard Border
Estate agent Michael McArdle outside his office in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Declan Fearon, spokesman for Border Communities Against Brexit and owner of Fearon Bros, a kitchen and bedroom furniture maker in Jonesborough, Co Armagh. Photograph: Simon Carswell
SDLP Councillor Pete Byrne of Newry, Mourne and Down Council in Crossmaglen, Co Armagh. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Robbie McAllister, owner of McAllister Interiors, at his showroom in Culloville, Co Armagh. Photograph: Simon Carswell
During the dark years of the Troubles, the border village of Crossmaglen in south Armagh was famous for its resistance to British rule, from the “Sniper At Work” sign on the village square to GAA players defiantly playing as helicopters descended above them at the army barracks next door.
Locals recall the “ring of steel” that once circled Cross and the political divisions that it brought to the area known as bandit country. Now, local people are apprehensive about a new emerging struggle – against the fall-out from Brexit. They fear a return to that kind of besieged outpost the village once was, given its location a few miles from the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the disappearance of the army checkpoints on the border roads and watchtowers on the surrounding drumlins, the only giveaways that you have crossed the 499-kilometre border are the signs switching from kilometres to miles and the occasional sign informing customers that local businesses accept both euro and sterling.
Now, roadside signs erected by the Border Communities Against Brexit leave motorists in no doubt that they have entered a new and changing jurisdiction, with warnings about a return to a hard border, customs checkpoints and “economic devastation”.
“I grew up in that era. I would definitely not like to go back to checkpoints, and the new generation that is coming through have never seen that before,” said Gerard McMonagle, owner of the Cross Square Hotel, which is a hub of activity on what was once a deserted O’Fiach Square during the Troubles.
“Anywhere you will have any sort of checkpoint, it is going to create tension,” he added, sipping a coffee in his hotel on Tuesday. “Leave it the way it is. We don’t want it to change.”
In business for just 15 months, Mr McMonagle’s hotel enjoys a vibrant passing trade from cross-border shoppers or visitors to football tournaments at the nearby grounds of Crossmaglen Rangers, whose victories in All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championships since 1997 have restored the reputation of the village.
The concern here is that the UK’s upcoming divorce from the EU could put the people here into the forced custody of an unwanted parent and disruptive permanent arrangements that would hurt all facets of everyday life and could threaten to unwind almost two decades of peace.
Four of the 18 staff at the Cross Square Hotel cross the border every day from the Republic, while 40 per cent of Mr McMonagle’s suppliers come from the south. “If there is a hard border there do we have to try to get suppliers from the north of Ireland?” he pondered.
Locals scratch their heads at how the cross-border ties in the community might be untangled in a post-Brexit world. They are equally frustrated at UK prime minister Theresa May and her government’s lack of consultation with the devolved Northern Irish government on what might happen beyond pulling the Article 50 trigger to leave the EU.
To all intents and purposes, the border hardly exists to the people of Crossmaglen. Re-establishing a hard frontier would be like trying to unscramble an egg. Few knew how many times they cross the border every day and locals keep two currencies in their pockets.
A 12-minute drive from Crossmaglen to Junction 17 of the M1 motorway, there are rows of parked cars on either side of the road, belonging to commuters who have travelled on to Dublin or Belfast by bus or in a car pool for work.
Immediate family members live within miles of each other, but on opposite sides of the border. Some households draw social welfare and family benefits from both north and south. At least 20 local children cross the border twice a day to attend a local secondary school, while church-goers cross back and forth to attend Mass in different churches within the border-straddling Upper Creggan Parish.
McMonagle, through his work for the Crossmaglen Fire and Rescue Service, has seen first-hand cooperation north and south. Ambulances are sent across the border from Dundalk when paramedics in Newry are busy, to attend road-traffic accidents on Concession Road, the aptly named thoroughfare running from Louth to Monaghan through a sliver of Armagh. This can cut an ambulance’s journey to an accident by 15 to 20 minutes. A hard border might jeopardise this life-saving arrangement.
“We can’t have one part of the parish in and one part of the parish out,” said Terry Hearty, a local farmer and Sinn Féin councillor representing south Armagh. “People voted here to remain [in the EU] and of course there would have to be a special status for us. It is the only way we could survive.”
Mr Hearty fears the impact of customs checks on tourism in this picturesque Slieve Gullion area, a popular place for hill walkers, and how inspections of tour buses might stop tourists from returning.
The imposition of post-Brexit tariffs on farm produce would deprive local farmers north of the border of the competition among dairies in the south that brings them better prices for their milk.
EU rural development funding has transformed nearby sparsely populated villages such as Creggan and Culloville, with community centres hosting events from morning fitness classes to bingo in the evenings. “It was a real lifeline to the area,” said Mr Hearty. Brexit will spell the end of that funding.
While locals in the predominantly Catholic village of Crossmaglen are sensitive to stirring political tensions within their border communities, they recognise that the damaging consequences of Brexit to the region makes the economic arguments for a united Ireland more compelling than ever before.
“It has to be questioned, economically, for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, ” said Robbie McAllister, who runs an interior design business in the area. He has been in business for a decade and employs 10 staff, including several who live in the south. Forty per cent of his business comes from the Republic. Brexit has forced the Crossmaglen native to put a planned expansion of his business on hold.
“It is going to segregate us even more. It is very hard to get away from the political debate, but the economic and political debate run side by side. You cannot break up the country,” he said.
Plans unveiled this week by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to publish a 12-point White Paper that could pave the way for Irish reunification were warmly welcomed in Crossmaglen this week.
“Brexit is obviously going to accelerate talks for a united Ireland and of course it should,” said Pete Byrne, a local SDLP councillor whose family have a fourth-generation headstone business that carved many of the monuments and plaques in and around the village to Irish freedom and slain republicans.
“It’s going to allow parties to put meat on the bones about the economic case for a united Ireland because you will have buy-in from the south, which you haven’t had in the last number of years.”
Estate agent Michael McArdle runs a third-generation business in Crossmaglen that predates any border. The large proportion of Northern Irish exports heading to the Republic, amounting to two-thirds of all EU-bound exports, supports the case for an economic union, he says.
“It would make sense for the whole lot to be an economic entity on its own. How that is going to work is up to the politicians,” he said.
The situation might require innovative thinking on the part of politicians, both north and south, and many of the locals in south Armagh who spoke to The Irish Times believe that one compromise would involve the creation of a special designation or exemption for Northern Ireland, effectively pushing the EU-UK border to the Irish Sea, leaving customs checkpoints at the ports and airports.
“The issue of a united Ireland and where that goes, we will leave that to the politicians. We do not want to stir up fears,” said Declan Fearon, spokesman for Border Communities Against Brexit and the owner of Fearon Brothers, a local kitchen maker established in 1979.
“If the will is there, there should certainly be a way that the six counties can remain part of the European Union without diluting Unionists’ wishes to remain part of the Union.”
Years of conflict
Sitting in his Jonesborough office, about 20 kilometres east along the border from Crossmaglen, Fearon points out his back window to Faughill Mountain where an army border watchtower once stood. He recalls running his business during the bleak years of conflict: five-hour waits at customs in Dundalk for his staff heading south to do business, soldiers blowing craters on local border roads, army helicopters flying over the patchwork farmlands below his office, gun battles in the fields.
“This border corridor is without doubt the eye of the storm with regards Brexit, not only in Ireland but in Europe. What people are very fearful of here is a slow border by stealth, even a soft border,” he said.
“Who knows where that will end up. That can end up in the very worst of circumstances, back to where we were 25 years ago.”