The Derry girls building opposition against new Irish borders post-Brexit

Ben Kelly

After European Union (EU) leaders made it clear to Theresa May they could not accept her Chequers proposal without a clearer plan for the Irish border, attention remains on the invisible 310 mile frontier across the emerald isle.

One of the crucial Brexit issues yet to be decided, neither the UK or the EU both want a "hard border" involving physical checks or infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

But cannot agree on how to resolve the issue. Ms May has previously rejected the EU's "backstop" plan - which involves keeping Northern Ireland aligned with its trading rules - saying it would divide up the UK.

Keen to add their voices heard in the debate, over 100 people flocked to the London Irish Centre in Camden.

Derry Girls Against Borders, is a campaign group dreamt up in Northern Ireland’s second city by 29-year-old Tanya McCamphill, who, like many people, is used to freely travelling across the UK and Ireland for work and leisure.

This summer, after crossing from Derry into Donegal to go for a walk on Culdaff beach, it dawned on her that the ease with which she made this journey may soon be disrupted.

Will she have to show a passport to drive to the local beach, or even to walk five minutes down the road? No one can say for sure.

“I sent out a tweet about this and pretty quickly it started getting a lot of attention, with a lot of people clearly sharing the same concerns as me," she said. "What surprised me was the number of people from different backgrounds who were engaging, and in particular, the amount of young women who were engaging.”

She then set up a WhatsApp group among a few of her friends who she thought might like to get involved to campaign against new borders after Brexit.

Several of the 100 people gathered rose to speak about their concerns around the Irish border (Grant Costello)

“A lot of them were people who wouldn’t usually be interested in politics," she said. "But this is not political. We don’t have a position. This group wants the voices of ordinary people to be heard, and for the status quo to be maintained.”

Since then, it has arranged for ordinary people to be given a platform at meetings the group have held thus far in Derry, Newry, Belfast, Dublin and now London.

The panel leading the discussion - like the assembled audience - are not political talking heads, but everyday people who have reached out to get involved, share their expertise and perform what they see as a civic duty.

Across the hour-long meeting, several Irish people living in London rose to share their concerns. Most appeared to be in their twenties or thirties, but a man in his early 50s, who has lived in London for over 30 years, spoke of his experience working near the highly militarised border in Derry during his youth. He was joined by one of his four children, with whom he now enjoy regular visits back to the motherland.

Tanya said that the group is open to anyone who wants to be part of this push to keep borders open across the two islands.

Anything short of this would bring major disruption to the lives of many people gathered in the room, she added.

“We’re tired of waiting for these discussions to happen," she said. "We can’t just put our lives on hold while we wait for a decision to be made.”

Gerald Angley, Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Ireland in London, attended the event with a number of colleagues.

“The Embassy really welcomes this non-political group’s initiative to highlight just how concerned people are about any hardening of the border,” he said. “This is all the more important because here in Britain, there has been too much focus on the economic aspects of the border issue - whereas the real issue is the profound wish by border communities not to have new barriers being erected when the whole purpose of the peace process has been to remove such barriers”.

A petition set up by the group is gathering thousands of signatures and next month, they will travel to Brussels, where they hope to arrange meetings with key political figures.

One member said that both the Irish Taoiseach and his deputy, the Tanaiste, have now followed the group on Twitter.

Perhaps the can-do attitude of the event was best summed up by 33-year-old barrister Gráinne Mellon, who told the audience.

“We’ll do what Derry girls are best at. Keep talking until everyone realises we were right all along. ”