On Irish border, anger at Westminster and fears of fresh violence

People living near invisible line separating island lament being used as Brexit bargaining chip.

by
    Bernard Boyle holds an Irish passport. Irish residents of Northern Ireland fear not being able to exercise the right to identify as Irish under the Good Friday Agreement [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
    Bernard Boyle holds an Irish passport. Irish residents of Northern Ireland fear not being able to exercise the right to identify as Irish under the Good Friday Agreement [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    County Armagh, Northern Ireland - The neglected carcass of an old customs building on the outskirts of the town of Newry, in an industrial area 20 minutes from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, is covered in graffiti.

    It has been more than 20 years since trucks stopped at the site to be inspected by British officials. The introduction of the European single market in 1993 eliminated the need for checks. 

    In the 1970s, the 17 posts like this were sometimes targeted by republican groups looking to unite the island as 30 years of conflict unfolded between mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists who wanted to be part of the United Kingdom.

    The 1998 Good Friday Agreement marked an official end to The Troubles.

    Most military infrastructure on the 500km-border was dismantled in later years. 

    Nearly 300 crossing points became simple roads for people to use daily.

    An old customs post near Newry [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    That invisible line is set to become the only land border between the UK - which includes Northern Ireland - and the European Union - of which Ireland is a member - after Brexit.

    "There has been a removal of the border in people's minds as well. People don't think of that border any more," said Bernard Boyle, who runs an accounting company in the nearby town of Forkhill, a former nationalist stronghold.

    On the long country road that leads out of the Northern Irish village through lush green fields, the only indication of leaving the UK is a traffic sign where the speed limit is written in kilometres instead of miles.

    There is lots of talk that checkpoints will be a target for dissidents. And they will. But it goes further than that. The local people will not accept a border infrastructure.

    Bernard Boyle, accountant and Northern Irish member of Border Communities Against Brexit

    Boyle, 67, said that during the EU referendum campaign, "the idea of a border coming back had not been discussed, had not been thought about. It was only after the referendum that people began to highlight the possibility of a hard border."

    He is a member of Border Communities Against Brexit, a group comprising a mostly older, middle-class demographic from traditionally Protestant and Catholic communities. 

    The organisation includes small traders or farmers who operate across the two jurisdictions, whose businesses risk going under if a new tariff regime is introduced under World Trade Organization rules.

    Fifty-six percent of Northern Ireland's citizens voted to stay in the bloc in the June 2016 vote, with most in the southwest - which includes the border areas - choosing to remain.

    A well-known mural in the Fountain [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    In Forkhill, several people hail from villages a few miles down the road, in the Republic of Ireland. 

    The bartender at the only local pub, for instance, crosses that invisible line every day. 

    Most people are weary of talking about Brexit and have no kind words for the politicians deciding their fate in Westminster.

    There are concerns that the return of a hard border in the form of checks and physical infrastructure in areas like these could result in a return to violence. 

    Both the British government and the EU have said keeping the Irish border frictionless would remain a negotiating priority. 

    But discussions in the last few weeks have jammed over the "backstop", the part of the withdrawal agreement that would keep Northern Ireland aligned to the EU's customs and regulatory arrangements until a trade agreement is reached.

    Citizens of Northern Ireland can choose to hold Irish, British or both passports according to the Good Friday Agreement [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    The backstop is seen by hardline Conservative MPs as a way of tying the UK to the EU's rules indefinitely. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has opposed it with the argument that treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK is unacceptable.

    "There is lots of talk that checkpoints will be a target for dissidents," Boyle said. "And they will. But it goes further than that. The local people will not accept a border infrastructure."

    He remembers when locals rebuilt roads that had been cratered by the army during The Troubles out of security concerns.

    "I remember the local people with machinery, and diggers and things coming down to fill it all in again, and the British army standing there with guns pointed at them," he said.

    There's no place for a hard border, there's no place for a border at all really ... To even think about getting your passport out to go shopping or to see your grandparents is ridiculous.

    Hollai Nic Conaill Oig, student

    Fears of renewed violence were brought to the international spotlight by a car bomb on January 19 in Londonderry, also known as Derry, a city perched on a dramatic valley at the northernmost part of the border.

    According to media reports, a group dubbed the New IRA claimed responsibility

    Paramilitary groups are known to exist on both sides of the border, and local police were aware of the New IRA's activities.

    "The issue around Brexit is that it's being used as a fear tactic to stir tension," said Kyle Thompson, director of New Gate Arts and Culture Centre in Londonderry's Fountain neighbourhood, a Protestant working-class enclave.

    Hollai Nic Conaill Oig, a student at Ulster University, says there is 'no place for a hard border' [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    During The Troubles, many people fled Fountain, which is now home to fewer than 300 people.

    The centre organises youth activities and a cultural festival with the aim, says Thompson, to "open up young people's mind to define their own cultural identity". 

    The hope is that this might have a knock-on effect in a place that has continued to be a sporadic flashpoint for violence in the city.

    "Nobody knows exactly what a hard border might look like," Kyle continued. "It's a term that's been created in order to [generate] fear in people to prevent the UK leaving the European Union.

    "A border already exists: there's two tax regimes, two different currencies. I think it's a bit of a myth and of scaremongering to actually talk about any type of hard border until we work out a trade relationship," he added.

    A traffic sign indicating the speed limit in kilometres instead of miles is all that marks the border on a main road leading out of Forkhill [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    But how people feel about the border depends on how they feel about Brexit as a whole.

    Nearby at Ulster University's Magee campus, Hollai Nic Conaill Oig wishes she could have had a say in the referendum, but was younger than 18 when it took place.

    "There's no place for a hard border, there's no place for a border at all really," said the Irish language student, who grew up in the city. 

    Her grandmother and part of her family live in the village of Muff in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.

    "It's just five minutes down the road. To even think about getting your passport out to go shopping or to see your grandparents is ridiculous," she added.

    Hollai holds an Irish passport. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland residents can choose to hold an Irish or British passport, or both. 

    "People in the past worked really hard to get to where it is now," she said.

    Murals on the walls outside a youth club in the Fountain neighbourhood pay tribute to British soldiers who died in the First World War [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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