Brexit: Mixed feelings in Border villages of Blacklion and Belcoo

Fears mount of being marginalised and geographically challenged if ‘we leave Europe’

Every village has stories. Rural Blacklion, on the southern side of the Fermanagh-Cavan border, has one that is better than most. One that perhaps holds lessons for today.

In 1939, the second World War had just been declared, forcing a group of German circus performers who had been on tour in Northern Ireland to flee south from Enniskillen or face being captured.

They attempted to cross into the Republic via Belcoo, where they were stopped by a rather bewildered customs officer.

"There was just this one man in the hut and he came out and there were elephants, tigers and all the rest lined down the road," recounts Harold Johnston with a chuckle. "He phoned the headquarters and they thought he was on the drink."


Let into Blacklion, the circus performed for excited locals.

“Men on stilts walking around the village, tapping the top windows of the houses. And you had this customs boy taking note of everything; one elephant, two tigers,” Johnston laughs.

Blacklion isn't laughing today, as the developing debate about the UK's June 23rd referendum on the European Union raises concerns about future controls along the Border.

“We are going to have some sort of control,” says Johnston, who owns a shop in Blacklion. “We were well used to that for 30 years. You couldn’t go anywhere at night; if you wanted to be somewhere you had to leave early.”

Gone too big

Britain “could go out of it,” Johnston says. “I wouldn’t be an expert on it, but it looks like it is heading that way.


has changed – it is too big, it has gone too big. Sure, what would it matter to the likes of me anyway? We are all at pension age about here.”

Margaret McCauley, a tourist administrator in Blacklion, fears the impact Brexit could have on Border tourism.

"What will happen? There's great freedom of movement now," she says, "It's very important that it continues, particularly for tourism, because people are already coming here asking me if they will need their passport to go into Northern Ireland.

"We are all on the same island," McCauley says. "I think it will affect the people of Northern Ireland more than the people of England, but they, I think, will be the decider in all of this."

Kathy Griffin, a retired teacher in Blacklion, says there has been too much "uncertainty" in the Brexit debate. But she presumes that there would have to be restrictions of some kind after an exit vote.

“I think one of the reasons why England wants to get out of Europe is the economic migration, wherever it is,” she says. “I don’t know how it going to affect people living in the South and working in the North, and people living in the North and working in the South.

“What is the point of worrying about something if you don’t know what you are worrying about? But it is a worry.”

Blacklion’s postmistress, Dympa Stewart, lives in Northern Ireland but crosses the Border every day. She is keen to remain in the European Union:

“We don’t know how the currencies are going to go,” she says. “I don’t want to see customs again because I don’t think it will help Ireland at all. If you are travelling back and forth several times a day and you are stopped, it is just going to be ridiculous.

“You can’t believe the politicians because they will only tell you what they want you to hear to secure your vote.”

Hugh Maguire lives in Blacklion but does his shopping just over the Border in Belcoo. "I come over to shop, I do surely," he says.

Big queue

“I mind the customs here,” Maguire says. “I would have gone through them once or twice a day. There would have been a big queue of cars, you know. If I came to Belcoo with a shopping bag, the customs man would be looking at the whole thing.

“I wouldn’t be worried about Brexit, but they say in the South that it would leave things very awkward. Most people would rather Britain would stay. It is on the television all the time.”

In Belcoo, Dan Scannell says leaving the EU would be "a disaster for this part of Ireland."

"When I lived here, we had checkpoints in Blacklion and an army checkpoint in Swanlinbar, " he says, "And while I never had any difficulty with them, it was a major encumbrance for people.

“For those of us who lived along here when the Troubles were on, we are now experiencing a very peaceful transition where people coexist quite harmoniously. We would hate to think if there was a division of us and them again.

“If Britain does go out of the EU, it is going to be difficult to control the borders, particularly on this island,” Scannell says. “As someone said, if you spit over there you are in the Republic. These are very uncertain times and the reality is we don’t know.”

Paul Leonard, who owns Jack's Bar in Belcoo, holds mixed views.

“We don’t know enough about it,” he says. “There is nobody coming around explaining the pros and cons. We are told to stay in because Europe is bigger and we can do more and that it is better for the economy here and the agricultural industry.

“From a business point of view, I don’t have any concerns because we are in a natural beauty spot and regardless of whether or not we are part of Europe, people will still come and visit, and look at it, and enjoy it. The euro was never adopted by the UK, so if there are fluctuations it is something that we are used to anyway in these Border areas.”

Dictated to

Leonard suggests the UK could ably “go back to governing itself” in a bid to “come up with its own strategies and policies instead of being dictated to by Europe. I don’t think a lot of policies being applied here from Europe are really of benefit to this country.”

North of the Border, husband and wife, John and Geraldine Higgins would prefer to remain party of the EU.

"My feeling on it is that we should be staying because being in the EU hasn't done us any harm," John Higgins says. "I think the danger is that apathy could come in. I think it will be a small vote."

“I am for remaining because I have recollections of it being very difficult going over and back across the Border,” says Geraldine Higgins. “I would have a fear of that coming back.

“I remember cars having to park at the Border on the Northern side and having to go on a 20-mile round trip on an approved Border crossing. You also had to have a disc on your car.

“I think Fermanagh is already a forgotten frontier,” she says. “My fear is that we would be further marginalised and even more geographically challenged than we are if we leave Europe.”