‘No hard Border. No EU red tape’
Unionists in the Border area of west Fermanagh reflect on the week’s negotiations
The sky is blue, then black, the trees are shivering in the north winds and the first snows of winter have arrived on the farmlands of Fermanagh.
Last Monday Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and former first minister Arlene Foster, who grew up along the Border here and represents the area, disrupted the choreographed delivery of the deal between the UK and the EU on the crucial issue of the Irish Border with Northern Ireland.
The DUP rejected the proposed assurances that there would be “regulatory alignment” between the two parts of the island of Ireland, claiming that this would effectively redraw the border in the Irish Sea.
British prime minister Theresa May was forced to make an embarrassing climbdown to avert a DUP threat to withdraw its support for her minority government. Foster claimed she had been “shocked” by the wording of that deal. On Friday she claimed there had been “substantial engagement” between her party and the British government in the interim and that “substantial progress” had been made.
Specifically, she said it was agreed that Northern Ireland would leave the single market and the customs union along with the rest of the UK and would have “unfettered access” to the UK’s internal market. There would be no “special status ... as demanded by Sinn Féin”.
However, Foster also said the talks had “run out of time” and that she had “warned” May not to proceed with the agreement in the form presented on Friday morning. Her statement appeared to concede that the price for these assurances might be a softer Brexit for the whole of the UK than many in her party have desired. Any alignment would now be “on a UK-wide basis”.
Dipping into the DUP’s store of religiously freighted vocabulary, Foster assured her people that her party and its allies in Westminster would ensure between now and the next phase of talks that there is “no backsliding”.
Unionists along the Fermanagh Border have mixed feelings about how Brexit should effect its operation as a frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and, post Brexit, the UK and the EU.
Most agree that there are great benefits to the invisible Border which currently, 19 years after the Belfast Agreement, exists. Along with tourism, decimated by the Troubles, the main industry is farming. When Border roads were blocked, farms were split and long journeys had to be made.
Vivid memories remain of the IRA’s campaign in these parts. Many unionist families include farmers who were part-time members of the security forces and others who were full-time. A locally-based victim’s group, the South East Fermanagh Foundation, now conducts guided tours of places along the Border where people were murdered.
Fermanagh is traditionally Ulster Unionist territory but when Arlene Foster defected to the DUP in 1998 because she saw the Belfast Agreement as a sellout for unionism, others crossed with her. It is now widely recognised in Northern Ireland that if you want to vote for a party with access to power that means the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Foster’s hardline stance on Brexit has won applause from her old enemy, the then first minister, David, now Lord, Trimble, and by the sole Traditional Unionist Voice MLA, Jim Allister, whose politics are closely aligned to the late Rev Ian Paisley’s in his “Never, never, never” days.
None of those with whom The Irish Times spoke was willing to countenance a United Ireland as a solution to the Border problem post-Brexit. Several said the Taoiseach had taken a decidedly “green” turn in recent times. They will have flinched at his choice of language yesterday when he spoke of having made a “bullet proof” deal.
There was too much blood spilt in the past here – the average person in Northern Ireland is happy with their lot
Barry Read gets straight to the point. “I voted for Brexit. My business was doing well until the slurry ban was introduced by the EU. Since then, things have been very difficult. The farmers were compensated but as an agri contractor I was not. It has taken me the best part of 10 years to recover my losses. If the DUP had accepted the deal last Monday I’d have been up in arms demanding a special deal to compensate the likes of ourselves.”
He cautiously welcomed the deal announced on Friday morning. “Nobody wants a hard border but we don’t want to be left with EU red tape either,” he says.
Read has been out these last few days pulling slurry to storage tanks in a farm a few miles away on the Border. “The farmer that owns it can’t spread it at this time of the year. EU legislation. He couldn’t spread it in the summer because of the rain. Now it’s costing him thousands and we are burning a pile of diesel to store it up the road. It would have been far more environmentally friendly to spread the slurry.
‘Clowns at Westminster’
As a unionist, the effective shifting of the Border to the Irish Sea would have been unacceptable. “Why should we be penalised? These clowns at Westminster are as bad as the clowns in Brussels,” he says. “They haven’t understood that in Northern Ireland we vote not just on economic but on constitutional issues.” He is angry with both the DUP and Sinn Féin for the fact that there is no executive at Stormont to represent Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.
In Fermanagh you can cross the Border half a dozen times in half a mile while travelling in a straight line – though there are not many straight lines on these roads, where signs warn of dipping bends and steep cambers and small hills seem to tilt crazily. Nowadays, you often don’t know which side of the Border you are on, though there are fragments of a few ruined customs huts here and there and some PSNI stations still have the husk of the old, heavily fortified old RUC barracks around them.
Read remembers the fortified Border of the Troubles years. “We used to be in and out with silage and every few minutes you’d have to get off the tractor and speak into an intercom to soldiers to get the barriers lifted.
“There was too much blood spilt in the past here – the average person in Northern Ireland is happy with their lot – they don’t want hassle.”
About 70 per cent of people in the county voted to remain in the EU, and support for Sinn Féin has surged in recent elections, at a cost to unionism. “I grew up as a member of the minority community in Fermanagh with the view that the other side of the Border was where the bad people lived,” says Ken Funston, whose family’s farm was right on the Border.
“Now the Irish Government are the bogeymen again. They were no friends of ours when the IRA conducted a war of genocide on Northern Ireland. My brother Ronnie was murdered when he was feeding cattle in 1984. It’s not that long ago and it has made people more determined to stay in the UK. The Irish Government has far more to lose from a hard border than we do.”
He is unimpressed by the EU. “It’s a superstate that tried to erode our own British laws.”
I have never considered the Republic of Ireland as a friendly State
Ulster Unionist councillor Alex Baird is the vice-chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh Council. We meet in the party’s Fermanagh office in the old cinema on Regal Pass in Enniskillen. There are photographs on the wall of King William on his white charger, the crowds at City Hall Belfast for the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the king and queen at the State opening of the Ulster Parliament in 1921 and of Lord and Lady Brookeborough in their sunken garden. There is a memorial plaque to 300 RUC officers killed in the conflict.
“I was pro-Remain but I accept the democratic decision of the United Kingdom electorate,” says Baird. “We can’t treat Northern Ireland any differently to the rest of the UK. Special status would weaken its sovereignty which is enshrined in the Good Friday agreement and therefore accepted by the UK, Ireland and the EU.” He is convinced that Sinn Féin, which he calls “Provisional Sinn Féin” wants a hard border. “They want to divide and conquer.”
Baird is reserving his judgment on Friday morning’s deal. “I was pleasantly surprised but there is still interpretational ambiguity. It’s the worst outcome for the hard Brexiteers – you’ve to keep the EU’s rules but you’ve no say in making them.
“My question would be, how will it work for, say, two HGVs leaving Glasgow for Paris – one heads south through England for Dover, the other has to pick goods up in Northern Ireland and then heads south for Rosslare. Will they have the same ease of transport, the same controls? As the old saying has it, the devil is in the detail.”
Eric Brown is one of those who moved from the UUP to the DUP with Foster. “Arlene is a good leader – she is resolute,” he says. “We have to trust her. This arrangement is only to get us into Phase 2. It is confusing but we just have to wait and see.”
He does not approve of the kind of language being used by some DUP politicians, however – Edwin Poots deriding the Taoiseach as “little Leo” and such. He blames Sinn Féin for the collapse of the Northern Ireland executive.
“My ancestors had to leave Co Cavan when they were forced out in the 1920s and I have never seen the South as a friendly State,” he says. “We came through a 40-year terrorist campaign and the Irish Government didn’t care when the IRA was using the Border as its safe getaway route. We wanted alignment then.
“They said it was impossible to seal the Border but they were fit to seal it when there was foot and mouth disease and it threatened their agri-business. They are good neighbours when it suits them.”
However, he says he does not want a hard border: “The vast majority of people with common sense realise that it is better to have co-operation with your next door neighbours.”