What Could A Hard Brexit Mean For The Border Counties?

As the UK braces itself for a snap general election which will play a part in determining the kind of Brexit we can expect, Peter McGoran travels to Monaghan, where uncertainty about the possibility of a hard border is leaving people on edge.

Deep in the Monaghan/Northern Irish countryside, an imaginary line divides the rural roads and quiet fields into two different jurisdictions. Here, farmyard cattle might criss-cross the once-disputed line between Ireland and the UK several times in a day and no one would think anything of it.

Here, a brief trip from Monaghan GAA’s hometown of Clones to the neighbouring county of Cavan might see you straddle the Irish/Northern Irish border up to five times in one journey. All of this might once have been a hugely loaded process, but without Customs offices or the British Army to get in your way, that line dividing North and South is a mere afterthought to people these days…

This is Patrick Kavanagh country – a place that is celebrated and castigated in equal measure in his poetry. It’s a geographically isolated place which at one time lived through tragic bombings, invasions (former First Minister Peter Robinson led an Ulster Loyalist incursion into the town of Clontibret in 1986) and countless armed checkpoints.

Monaghan has seen quieter times since the end of the Troubles in the 1990s. But now, with the prospect of Brexit weighing down on Northern Ireland, the spectre of a hard border on the island hangs over the county.

“Brexit means Brexit” is the cry coming from the Tories in Westminster. But for the people along the border, that could mean anything or nothing…

The Threat of Violence

I’m here to meet with Patrick Mulroe, a Monaghan native who has just published Bombs, Bullets And The Border – Policing Ireland’s Frontier: Irish Security Policy, 1969-1978. Patrick is a man who knows the implications of borders better than most. He walks me through what they meant in the past, and what they might mean for our future.

“I’ll tell you right off the bat,” says Patrick, smiling, “that whenever I began working on this book, the phrase Brexit hadn’t even been coined! It began as a piece of academic research for a PHD that I was doing before I knew what my career path would be. In terms of the timing of its publication, Brexit’s been lucky for me, in that it’s generated interest in the book – although it hasn’t been so great for the public…”

Patrick’s firmly against Brexit, as are most people who live along the border. But does he have a sense of how bad it might be?

“People can be a bit blasé about borders,” he replies. “They can disregard the effects that they have and say things like, ‘Well, the dissidents aren’t going to start a huge campaign because a couple of customs post pop up’ – and they’re right to a certain extent.

“But you have to look further down the line and look at the broader implications and the culture it will create, if people are going about their day-to-day activities and are treated as if they’re lawbreakers because they have to cross a border to go work. Added to that, there’s issues to do with authority figures – police officers, politicians, or possibly soldiers imposing laws that others don’t agree with – and what effect that can have on the national psyche. And this will affect the whole island, yet it was only, what, ten percent of the island that voted for Brexit? That’s a startling figure.”

Does Patrick see renewed threats and attacks from dissident Republicans as being a real possibility?

“If you look at 1969/70, there was virtually no violence or trouble along the border,” says Patrick. “But violence really escalated in 1971 when they closed border roads. That brought massive support to Republicans in places where they probably wouldn’t ever have had it.

“Now, in a recent Irish Times article, veteran Republicans said quite strongly that they didn’t think Brexit would derail the peace process. Then Pat Kenny spoke to some of the dissident groups – like Republican Network for Unity and the IRSP – and they similarly didn’t see it as a potential flashpoint for violence. You’re more looking at the long-term implications of dividing the country – like having Customs posts going from Newry to Dundalk. Under those circumstances, dissidents could thrive.”

Venturing along the border with Northern Ireland, you reach a series of unassuming country roads where Monaghan shares a border with Louth to the east and Armagh to the north. This is a focal point for some of Ireland’s most successful criminal enterprises, who specialise in cross-border smuggling. Is there an argument that talk of borders might play into their hands?

“Well, if you consider the border between Norway and Sweden – which is the type of border that the UK hope will work in Ireland – there’s all types of rates and duties on everything that passes through, and criminal enterprises operate there.

“Now, the Norway/Sweden example is the best case scenario in terms of the UK’s outlook for the border, which is quite worrying. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that if there’s a different rate of duty and different taxation systems, somebody’s going to see an opportunity for criminality. People along the border have been doing it since the 1920s. Black economies emerge precisely because of these situations.”

Secure Borders

On the political front, as the UK heads towards another general election, parties in Ireland are using Brexit as the focal point for their campaigns. Patrick notes that this election could give an anti-Brexit, pro-nationalist party – like Sinn Fein – an opportunity to capture the narrative. His book highlights the delicate tightrope that was walked during the troubles by successive Irish governments in relation to the North – and how Sinn Fein was able to exploit this.

Whether it was Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, Patrick notes, the government had to protect the interests of the Republic, whilst also dealing with the security threat of the IRA and the political threat of Sinn Fein (a party who appeared to represent the Irish nationalist ethos more than any other party in the country).

“When the 26-county State emerged,” says Patrick, “the primary focus was on security. And you can see that very clearly in the ’70s, where the Irish State acted to protect its own interests before those of anywhere else. And at the moment, you have the Irish State going back to that position again, of protecting its own interests above the wider interests of the island. That leaves Sinn Fein in an interesting place because they operate across the border. And they might actually become more influential because of that.”

No matter who benefits from the outcome of Brexit, perhaps one of the cruellest ironies of the border situation is that the ultimate decision will not be made by either Northern Ireland or the Republic but rather, by the British government and the EU (each with small Irish/Northern Irish delegations). It is a sobering thought that sticks with me as I push ahead across the border.

Brexit Means Lexit?

Here, in Northern Ireland, the battle lines are being drawn for the June 8 UK election, where all the major parties are hoping to make gains based on their opposition to, or support for, Brexit.

One politician who campaigned heavily for “Lexit” (left-wing exit of the EU) was West Belfast People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll. Heavily respected for his grass roots approach in his constituency, Gerry has had to deal with criticism for his Leave position – not least from Sinn Fein, who consider him a thorn in their side in the republican heartland of West Belfast.

Gerry Carroll

In light of all that’s happened in the last 10 months, does Gerry still stick by his view that Brexit can actually bring benefits to the people on these islands?

“Our position was based on socialist policies,” he tells me. “We see the EU as having copper-fastened austerity, particularly in the south of Ireland and on the people of Greece. It has also built up a hardwire fence on refugees and immigration which has tragically led to thousands of refugees dying. So our reasons for advocating a leave vote go back to socialist, left-wing principles.

“We said that in the aftermath of a referendum, it’s up to the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to shape the trajectory of the negotiations. It’s not simply a case of letting the negotiations be shaped by the Tories. We’re democrats, which means we respect the will of the people and also believe the voices of individual member states of the UK should also be respected; we’re not going to let this be a Tory whitewash.

“Whatever way you look at it, Brexit has caused a massive political crisis for the establishment and for Westminster. In the midst of that, there’s space for the left to shape the agenda in a popular, progressive and radical way.”

That said, People Before Profit suffered heavy losses during the Northern Irish Assembly elections in March, with its only other MLA, and Hot Press columnist, Eamonn McCann, sadly losing his seat in Derry. Gerry speaks optimistically about the long-term benefits of dealing a blow to the Establishment with Brexit, but the recent results in the North were a boost for pro-Remain parties including Sinn Fein.

Overall, Northern Ireland voted 56%/44% to remain within the EU. Perhaps the idea of borders – with their implications of renewed violence, isolationism and economic uncertainty – has led unionists and nationalists to find short-term common ground. Does Gerry have fears about the implications of a hard border? “The Irish government don’t want a hard border and neither does the British government. The Executive wasn’t for it either, before it collapsed; and now the EU committee have said they won’t push want it either. The political terrain is against the idea of hard borders. If there’s an attempt to implement one, we can combat that with people power. That’s what we’re saying in our manifesto. If the people of Berlin can tear down a wall, we can stop the imposition of a hard border.”

Entering the Unknown

Steadfastly downplaying the threats of a hard border and continuing to see last year’s referendum as an opportunity for progress, Gerry’s optimistic outlook couldn’t be further from that of Patrick Mulroe.

“We’re entering into the unknown with this,” says the Monaghan writer, sounding particularly wary about the current state of affairs. “For the people here, so much will depend upon factors which we can’t control. Different European countries will be entering into these negotiations with their own agendas. Particular political leaders won’t want to see the UK get a good deal and would conceivably like that border to be as hard as possible, which throws up questions for the Irish government’s response.

“We might have very little choice ourselves about how our relationship is with Britain. Then you have elections across Europe, in Germany and the UK, which could all change the landscape. There’s much to be uncertain about in the future here…”

 

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