Brexit’s Collateral

The stories of people on the Irish border affected by Brexit

Photographs by Lorcan Doherty

It has been likened by some commentators to a slow-motion car crash—but is more commonly referred to as Brexit: the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which has so far taken longer than expected. On June 23, 2016, a majority of people in the UK voted to leave the EU; while in Northern Ireland, the majority voted to remain. One of the most complex issues the governments have had to deal with has been the question of the Irish border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

The 500 km frontier was set up in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned into two separate jurisdictions. The new Free State—later called the Republic—was established, while the six counties of Northern Ireland chose to remain within the UK. The border split up farms with country roads, or boreens, intertwining and twisting north-south in a cartographical puzzle, and it has been an ongoing sore spot with customs posts, roadblocks and security checks a regular feature. The meandering border radically reshaped political and social realities across the entire island of Ireland and was regarded by the business community as an administrative nuisance.

In the worst years of what was called the Troubles (1968– 1998), a conflict which claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people, the borderlands were a dangerous area with some parts known as “bandit country.” Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border has largely been invisible, with free movement of travel and trade. Each day, thousands of people cross it because their jobs take them to shops, restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals. The stakes are extremely high in the Brexit process. Leaving the EU presents a major regime change with huge political, economic and social consequences for people living close to, or on, the border. Many call it a crisis.

What follows are interviews with three people whose everyday worlds transcend the border, speaking about their concerns regarding Brexit and its implications. They remember the dark days of the Troubles and the hope that the Good Friday Agreement would lead to a lasting peace, free of any borders, barriers or road closures. To read the rest in the series, you can purchase the Ireland print issue here.

Brian McDermott is a leading chef who owns a hotel in Moville, in Co. Donegal and relies heavily on cross-border business from Derry City

Photo credit:

Lorcan Doherty

Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott is a leading chef who opened a new hotel in Moville in Co. Donegal in the Inishowen peninsula in 2018.

I grew up 100 yards from the border in Coshquin, and I distinctly remember incidents that happened. The scars are still there. When I was 12, I used to cycle to a sports complex nearby, which took me just one minute and 32 seconds but sometimes could take an hour because we would get stopped and chastised by British soldiers. That still hurts and it takes me back to an unpleasant period. Professionally, there is a fear that anything that delays people in a very fast-paced environment is a huge problem. Everything is at our fingertips nowadays, and we’re in a world where we almost believe that there should be an app at the border which will fast-track us through using some sort of Disneyland technology.

At whatever level Brexit happens, it will be horrendous. Even if there is a small customs check versus a full-on border check, any delay in life is a problem. The vast majority—up to 80 percent—of my customers are from the North. Imagine your business being wiped out—that is the risk that’s potentially here for me with borrowings and 36 jobs to sustain.

At whatever level Brexit happens, it will be horrendous.

What we used to do was source our fish from Donegal Prime Fish, which was based in Derry, even though they sourced their fish from Greencastle in Donegal. Right now, they process it and fillet it, but if Brexit and the EU tariffs kick in, there will be 11 percent on certain fish and 26 percent on others to be sold back to us. So right now, there is a market and advantage to what we’ve done, which is going directly to the boats in Greencastle. I am making my business Brexit-proof to continue to get the supply of the fish I need at the consistent price, despite the tariffs.

There should be no borders on food on this small island, and we must shout that globally. There needs to be a single status that applies to all of Ireland, with a specific EU strategy looking at this region separately and taking consideration of employment or currencies. This is a seaside town, and we’re not just watching the weather anymore, we are watching the rates of sterling.

If we are to prosper internationally, the island status should be presented collectively. It has got to be dealt with so that Ireland is seen as a good country to come and invest in, with exports going out to help us grow. Brexit is not a cloud anymore. It’s a backpack we are carrying each year, and it’s a weight that we can’t get rid of. Far more than anything else, it is holding back the border communities while the politicians in Westminster look on smirking and smiling.

Marie Lindsay, Principal of St. Mary’s College in Derry, who crosses the border daily from her home in the village of Muff, on the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal.

Photo credit:

Lorcan Doherty

Marie Lindsay

Marie Lindsay, principal of St. Mary’s College in Derry, Northern Ireland, crosses the border daily from her home in the village of Muff, on the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal.

As I cross the border every day for my work, Brexit will affect me directly. My biggest concern is the unravelling of the cohesion of society that has existed since the Good Friday Agreement and the seamless way in which the people in my part of Inishowen are connected to people in Derry. I think this is something that you cannot put a value on; people are worried about delays or possible difficulties or what papers might be needed.

I’ve got a Green Card for my car insurance—it wasn’t easy, but it arrived from my insurance company, so we are legitimate, and that is just one technical hitch to make sure you are insured. You can see that all this spells barriers, and most of them are in our minds. I was born and grew up in Donegal. I am a country girl at heart. I love where I live, but if I had to, I would consider moving to live across the border in Derry, although that would be a last resort.

When I was a child, it was a big outing to board a bus to Derry. I remember my uncle taking me to buy a new pair of shoes, and I remember going to the city on the bus on my own as a teenage girl, which was a rite of passage. Even now when I talk to the girls in school—there are 900 of them here—I think nearly everyone has a granny in Derry. But if you go back two generations, many of them seem to have a connection with Donegal and still holiday in it, so that interconnectedness is familial and is a tie to the place, which means the political border just runs counter to that.

My biggest concern is the unravelling of the cohesion of society that has existed since the Good Friday Agreement

The funniest thing is that people come from many places to see the border, and there is nothing to see. If you are tuned in, you may notice that the road markings are different, but it is seamless, and we’ve all gotten used to it. We’ve all become Europeans. People think about the border and see a line on the map, but when you come to this place, you don’t see the line on the map, you only see people and their lives.

Many politicians have come here, and many of them are well informed, but they have no idea about what is involved in being a border people. There is a huge job to be done, and it requires our politicians to work through these challenges and look at a way forward that will address the needs of the people of the area along the border. They can only do that if they understand it, but they need to meet the farmers and businesspeople whose lives are intertwined. Brexit has become a toxic word. Most people are fed up with hearing about it on the news. It’s only people like myself who cannot afford to be fed up with it who have to keep abreast of it.

Don Reddin is a cross-border businessman who runs a long-established coach hire company based in Co Donegal and has split his firm into two parts.

Don Reddin

Don Reddin is a cross-border businessman who runs a long-established coach hire company based in Co. Donegal.

We are standing here in our bus yard, which is right on the Derry-Donegal border. Two acres of it are in Derry, and we have an existing yard of an acre and a half in Donegal. The two yards are adjacent to each other, with a border crossing in the middle of them. This small stream running under the bridge is called the Liberties River, and it is a tributary of the River Foyle, so we call it a bridge over troubled waters.

I had known for some years that people in Northern Ire- land were not happy with the EU, so a few years ago, prior to the Brexit vote, we built a new entrance for the Northern yard, which was completed in 2018. We dramatically speeded up the process in anticipation of what might happen. Because of where we are situated geographically, my main market was Derry city, so to make our business more secure, we split the company into two: Reddin Coach Hire in the Republic, and Reddin Coach Hire N. I. Ltd. The cost of that redevelopment was around £200,000.

It’s crazy, and it has got nothing to do with politics, because I don’t care about the political side of it. It’s to do with economic stability that I’m talking about, and it’s a real pain. Brexit presents no positives for us, just more heartache, more work and of course we have doubles for many things. For example, I have a UK cell phone in this hand and an Irish phone in the other hand, and in the left-hand pocket of my jacket I keep euros while my right-hand pocket has sterling, and that’s the way we work.

Brexit presents no positives for us, just more heartache

It pains me to listen to politicians and the lies they tell. I don’t care whether they are from Belfast, Dublin or London, they’ve never lived on the border and never understood what we are going through here with this constant upheaval of the currency and exchange rate. It’s hard enough to do what we do, never mind starting to introduce more legislation and put- ting more barriers and borders in place. Regardless of how they work it—and I’m not saying the EU is perfect—but the one thing was that Ireland and the UK supported each other in Europe, and Ireland has much more in common with the UK than with France or Germany.

The politicians can’t agree on anything—it’s up in the air. We might have an agreement, we might not; no one knows. The most frustrating aspect of the whole business for me has been the negativity coming from the UK, from London and other parts of the country where it has just been so anti-Euro- pean it is unbelievable. There has been no positive leadership from the UK to get them out of this mess. I would like to go back to the drawing board and try to make this island economically one to allow free trade, North and South, because it’s too small a country to be running two economies.


Paul Clements

Paul Clements is a journalist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author of five books about Ireland and is a contributor to the Irish Times.

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